Both human and machine must find ripe strawberries between the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Each contender has 10 seconds per plant. Then repeat endlessly before the fruit spoils.
The future of agricultural work has arrived in Florida, promising to ease labour shortages and reduce the cost of food, or so says the team behind "Harv", a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.
Harv is on the cutting edge of a push to automate the way US farms gather goods that bruise and squish, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers. Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.
"The labour force keeps shrinking," said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. "If we don't solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won't be affordable or even available to the average person."
According to an article on smh.com.au, the problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $US9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.