Fruit-picking robots might transform agriculture

It is still not easy for robots to do something as simple as picking an apple from a tree. Robotics researcher Joe Davidson: “It’s a simple thing” for humans. You and I could close our eyes and reach into the tree. We could feel around, touch it, and say, ‘hey, that’s an apple, and the stem’s up here,’ before pulling and twisting. We could do all that without even looking.”

Researchers have been working for decades to create a robotic implement that can pick an apple and drop it into a bin without damaging it. Davidson and his colleagues turned to the human hand for inspiration. They began their efforts by observing professional fruit pickers and are now working to replicate their skilled movements with robotic fingers.

Their work could help to transform agriculture, turning fruit-picking – a backbreaking, time-consuming human task – into one that’s speedy and easier on farm workers.

These efforts have gained impetus recently as researchers point to the worsening conditions for farm workers amid the climate crisis, including extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and also a shortage of workers in the wake of the pandemic. The technology could lead to better working conditions and worker safety. But that outcome depends on how robots are deployed in fields, farm workers’ organizations say.


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