Northwest fruit growers have had trouble for years finding enough workers to help them during harvest season. Across the industry, labor availability has become such a concern that many farmers are desperately searching for technological innovations that can help offset the steady decline in manpower. 

The situation has continued to worsen this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to the work of Washington State University scientists, growers may not have to wait much longer for a helping hand — robotic hands, to be precise. 

Over the past few years, associate professor Manoj Karkee and his biological systems engineering team have been collaborating with FFRobotics of Israel to develop an automated, 12-arm harvesting machine. The apparatus, which features six arms on either side, will be in limited use this year and could be more widely available by 2022.

“We have tested a full-scale machine in the field that has shown great promise,” said Karkee, who is also helping develop robotic solutions for pruning, thinning and pollination. “We are hoping to have an introductory impact on the industry this year, and an elevated impact next year. But by 2022 or 2023, we think this technology will provide a viable alternative that will substantially reduce the need for human labor.” 

Karkee said because Washington’s economy depends so heavily on crops like apples, cherries and wine grapes, he and the other scientists want to do everything they can to help farmers maximize production while becoming less dependent on manual labor.

“Developing automated solutions for harvesting is only part of the story,” he said. “The robotic harvester is the first step, but you also have pruning, training and thinning that require large amounts of manual labor. That’s why robotics is relevant to all of our research efforts as we target completely automated field operations.”

Aside from the harvesting machine, WSU scientists are making headway on a robotic pruning mechanism that locates undesirable tree branches and removes them without human intervention. All of the individual components of the pruner have been tested together in the lab, and Karkee said he expects field testing to begin this summer.

The scientists also have been working on robotic solutions for pollination and thinning, but those projects are in the initial stages. Both utilize complex camera systems to locate flowers and examine their internal structure, just like farmers and field workers do with their eyes. 

“The cameras collect two different images from each tree, and once we have these images, we use computer algorithms to process them so we can see the boundary of the objects we’re interested in,” he said.

After the boundary is determined, the machines then calculate the distance required to reach flowers for pollination or thinning. Meanwhile, WSU is using similar digital vision technology to develop cellphone-based tracking systems that will enable apple and grape farmers to scan branches and vines.

“The goal is to give farmers and workers an app that they can bring into the field and collect vital information so they can make informed farming decisions,” Karkee said, adding that the tracking system has been tested on apples and is currently being tested on grapes. “We hope to have a beta version available in the next year or so.”

Because WSU is the only institution in the Northwest with a program fully dedicated to agricultural robotics, Karkee and his team feel an enormous sense of responsibility to provide growers with the tools they will need to remain competitive in the future.

“The work we are doing is helping Washington farmers,” he said. “But we’re also doing this for farmers in the Pacific Northwest, across the country and around the world.”

This article appeared in the Capital Press in July 2020.