Tests are being completed of ‘robot’ fruit-picking machines that can pick strawberries as carefully and quickly as humans, and can help growers solve the labour shortage challenge next growing season.

Belgian Prototype Very Promising

European strawberry growers in Spain, Belgium and the UK are welcoming tests of robotic prototypes that can harvest soft fruit mechanically.

One example that has enjoyed some publicity is the ‘Octinion’ robotic arm on a self-driving trolley. Produced by a Belgian start-up, it is claimed that the Octinion can compete with a human in terms of price and speed as it is able to pick one strawberry every four seconds, collect between 70% and 100% of the ripe fruit, and leave the berry with only the calyx (and not the stalk), which is the way European consumers are used to buying their berries.

The success of this robot, which can grip and turns the fruit by 90 degrees to snap it off its stalk just like a human, means that it is now completing final tests in partnership with real-world growers in the UK and continental Europe, and looks like being a realistic option for next season.

Dogtooth From Cambridge

Another soft fruit-picking robot prototype that looks like being a serious competitor is the ‘Dogtooth’ which has been produced by a Cambridge-based start-up, has recently been tested in Australia, and is also made up of a robot arm mounted on a self-driving trolley.

The Dogtooth has been designed to be able to pick strawberries the way UK retailers prefer, by leaving around a centimetre of stem still attached, because it has been found to extend shelf life.

Unlike the Octinion’s machine which has been built to work on fruit grown on raised platforms in polytunnels, Dogtooth’s machine has been designed to be able to pick traditional British varieties in the field.

Genuine Labour Shortage

Some commentators have suggested that the motivation for producing the robots is simply to replace migrant labour with a cheaper, more efficient alternative, but strawberry producers across Europe and the US have insisted that they face a genuine shortage of workers to pick their fruit.

In the UK for example, the value of sterling following the Brexit vote has made it difficult to recruit overseas workers, and UK-based workers don’t appear to find seasonal picking work attractive or practical.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

This is an example of how a range of technologies have been combined to produce a tool that can meet very real agricultural challenges, and could revolutionize a whole industry across the world. Although these machines may be expensive to buy, they can pay for themselves over time because, unlike humans, they don’t require wages, can work any number of hours, and they don’t take holidays, get sick or leave. They also mean that growers can plan their production with more certainty and don’t have to expend time, effort, and money on recruitment.

Automation, aided by huge technological advances, is a growing trend across most industry sectors. For example, a report by PwC from March 2017 claimed that over 30% of UK jobs could be lost to automation by the year 2030. According to the report, 44% jobs in manufacturing (where there are already many robots e.g. car manufacturing), especially those involving manual work, look likely to go to AI led software or robots. Transportation jobs are also in the high-risk category for robot replacements, and according to the report, 56% of jobs could be lost to autonomous vehicles. Jobs in the UK’s largest sectors, wholesale retail jobs, also look vulnerable to automation into the future.

AI and robotics will alter what jobs look like in the future, but it is also important to remember that, as with the strawberry-picking robots, they could provide huge advantages and opportunities for businesses.

Workers can only really try to insulate themselves from the worst effects of automation by seeking more education / lifelong learning, and by trying to remain positive towards and adapting to changes. How much automation and what kind of automation individual businesses adopt will, of course, depend upon a cost / benefit analysis compared to human workers, and whether automation is appropriate and is acceptable to their customers.