Nov 1, 2019Investment, need drive in-soil strawberry harvester
Investment, a groundbreaking “commercialized” strawberry harvest and swelling grower interest add up to a good year for Advanced Farm Technologies (AFT).
The Davis, California-based company’s T-6 robotic strawberry harvester is one of just a handful of machines that are being taken seriously by the industry, due to increased labor challenges.
The T-6 automatically identifies red berries and picks them with two robotic arms, while a human operator drives it over the in-soil strawberry beds.
Kyle Cobb, one of AFT’s four founders, said the T-6 conducted a commercialized harvest last season on a 100-acre farm in the Santa Maria region of California. The harvested strawberries, he said, were sold into the retail market.
The harvester rolls over strawberry beds 48-56 inches wide, and can adjust for different heights, Cobb said. A key piece of the work was finding a soft touch for the robotic arms.
“You can’t do anything else before you figure out how to handle the fruit gently and carefully,” Cobb said.
He added, though, that “we’re still learning things every day.” One of the goals for future models is to remove the need for a human driver.
The robots aren’t for sale. So far, the strawberry picker works on a piece-rate basis. The AFT website welcomes growers to schedule a demonstration. Cobb said he didn’t know when the technology would be more widely available to growers.
But a release could be coming sooner than previously expected. In late summer, AFT got a $7.5 million boost from new partners, including the investment arm of Yamaha Motor, Kubota, Catapult Ventures and Impact Venture Capital. Nolan Paul, partner and global agtech lead for Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley, said Yamaha’s investment group has an interest in specialty crop technologies. Yamaha and Kubota’s expertise lies in large-scale manufacturing. Yamaha has a robotics group and is interested in diversifying its business, which has traditionally been focused on motorsports. Its other investments to date have included automated apple picker Abundant Robotics and New Zealand-based RoboticsPlus, Paul said.
Yamaha’s interest in specialty crop technology is based on the premise of fruits and vegetables becoming more popular with consumers, and resources of all kinds – labor, farmland, food – becoming more scarce, Paul said. Labor shortages sometimes result in acres of fruit going unpicked, and strawberry production, in particular, is vulnerable to labor problems.
“If you’ve ever been out to try to pick strawberries, it’s got to be the hardest job in the world,” Paul said. “You’re out there out all day, and you’re bent over. You’re running back and forth.”
In part to make the job less strenuous for an aging farm labor workforce, some growers have moved strawberry plantings onto elevated ridges, or “tabletops.” And most robotics solutions are aimed tabletops or elevated beds.
But Paul said Yamaha invested in AFT in part because “they’re one of the few companies trying to solve the problem in-soil as opposed to tabletop systems out of the soil.”
“Right now, in the U.S. the acreage for in-soil is, I would say, 99.9% of acreage,” he said. “That’s where the pain is. The U.S. may in time move to more tabletop (strawberry growing), but it’s more expensive; it requires more talent. The sophistication of how to grow in a tabletop environment – that talent pool is lacking in the U.S.”
Yamaha’s other attraction to AFT, Paul said is that tight-knit group already has completed one other robotics project. Greenbotics – a startup with automation for cleaning industrial-sized solar panels – was purchased by SunPower in 2013.
Robotics development – like strawberry picking and commercial strawberry growing – is challenging work.
“We’re just trying to be humble about how hard it is to be a grower,” Cobb said. “It’s certainly hard to be building robotic equipment and when you put those hands together, it’s even harder all around. We’re trying to be humble about the problems. You continuously learn and improve.”
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor