Some day in the not-too-distant future, an orchardist will push a button and a fleet of robots will deploy and harvest the apples. Working day and night and in any weather, they will choose only the apples that are perfectly colored and send them into bins. They will also note apples that are not quite ready and return when they are.
From there, robotic transports will take the bins to the packing plants, where automated sorters and packers will choose which apples to pack and which to send to controlled atmosphere storage.
When a sales manager makes a sale, the order will be fulfilled automatically and loaded onto a driverless truck, which will deliver them to the customer. Every step will be tracked by blockchain, allowing the company to track every step, from the exact tree that an apple came off to its placement in the store to the consumer’s home.
Science fiction? For now, yes. But in the near future, the tree fruit industry will see a revolution unlike any other. Robots will replace people at nearly every step of apple production and distribution.
Automated and computerized sorters and packing lines are already in use, allowing greater volumes of fruit to be handled at greater speed. Eventually, other steps will also be automated and computerized, if they haven’t already.
A key step toward this new era is robotic apple pickers. Once seen as a combination of Buck Rogers and pie in the sky, robotic pickers are getting closer to commercialization.
The advantages are obvious. Apple growers have for years been struggling to find adequate numbers of pickers. Many are forced to pay exorbitant costs to bring in pickers from Mexico and other countries and put them up in free housing. They receive government-set wages — and so do any domestic pickers that work alongside them.
To simplify the system using robots would represent a leap forward for the industry. Added computerization and automation will further reduce labor costs.
Currently, two companies are racing to perfect their robotic pickers. Abundant Robotics of Hayward, Calif., and FFRobotics, an Israeli company, both have working prototypes. They have been field testing their machines this year in New Zealand, Europe and Washington state.
While they develop and commercialize their robots, other companies such as DBR Conveyor Concepts in Conklin, Mich., and Automated Ag Systems of Moses Lake, Wash., are developing hybrid systems that help human pickers do their jobs quicker and without having to clamber up and down ladders.
Apple growers will not be alone in the robotic era to come. Other fruits — oranges, grapefruit and pears — plus crops such as lettuce, asparagus and even strawberries will be picked, packed and transported to market.
Not long ago, the idea of picking berries by machine was a game changer. Then came grape harvesters. Then came other ideas — including modifying berry harvesters to handle apples for cider.
These innovations will not stop. As long as the economics dictate, the robotic era will continue.