Autonomous strawberry harvester now working Central Florida fields

An automated strawberry-harvesting robot at Wish Farms in Plant City has shown progress toward full deployment for the upcoming strawberry season, its inventors say. Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry grower who runs Wish Farms, said several factors led the grower to develop a robotic picker of strawberries. The first was a dwindling labor force.

“As the human labor force continues to decline, it is just a matter of time before labor shortages become critical,” said Wishnatzki, a managing member of Harvest CROO, the company that's developing the harvester.

The robotic harvester started over lunch with his cofounder, Bob Pitzer in 2012. The following year they started a pilot program and made plans to start testing the technology in a garage in Tampa. That would lead to Berry 1, its first prototype. The goal was clear, “we just have to be as good clearing strawberries from the field as people,” Wishnatzki said. 

Harvest CROO LLC is the company he cofounded with Bob Pitzer. One of the challenges with automated strawberry harvesting is finding the berries under the leaves. They made small changes to how they grow the plants and kept to a regular schedule of pruning the leaves to keep the foliage down, which leads to more sunlight on the berries, so they ripen faster and reduction in disease pressure.

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