By Olamide Tejuoso
Asides using robots for weed control, fruit farmers in some countries are now embracing robotics in harvesting their crops, which is termed mechanical picking, in order to boost efficiency. This development is coming to help farmers continue harvesting amid human worker shortage. In Australia, the Federal Government and private investors have collaborated to invest in the development of fruit-picking. Recently, Tasmanian Berry Farm has been in the news, for using robotic harvesters to pick its fruits. The robots are said to be picking the fruits with precision, picking them on the farm according to colour, shape and size.
These robots are said to have dozens of cameras built in them so as to be able to take images of each strawberry in order to determine its ripeness, weight and measure the 17 potential defects in the berry, as they have been programmed. The robots are set on tracks, between rows of strawberries grown on tables under poly tunnels. Reacting to the development, Rachel MacKenzie from Berries Australia stated that although robots are now very common in blueberry packhouses, it was less common to use them for harvesting. She said “Blueberries are most robust and I believe some companies are exploring mechanical harvesting for the non-premium variety. With increasing labour costs, I can foresee that mechanical blueberry harvesting may become more common in the next five years”.
She, however, did not predict such future for rubus and strawberries because of their soft nature. Labour costs represent at least 60 per cent of the cost of production for berries, so if there was any way for those to be reduced then there would be significant uptake. According to Laurissa Smithm, who was employed on Tasmanian Berry Farm, to manage the robotics, submitted that the technology is not a replacement to humans, as most of them are managed by workers around. “It’s more of a supplement for the workforce on the farm”, adding that it is peace of mind for farms using robotics for their harvest especially when experiencing staff shortage.
Addressing the issue, an agricultural robotics, Dr. Thomas Daum, has declared that using this form of technology comes with its pros and cons, especially for the environment. Stating the benefits of agricultural robotics to include increased planting, increased diversity of crops and reduction in the amount of agrochemicals for planting, and increased yield. Dr. Daum, however, said these robots could cause environment degradation, if plentifully used on farms. Meanwhile, an agricultural robotics startup in Queensland, SwarmFarms, has insisted that robotics have a lot of potential to make agriculture more efficient.