Robot lawn mover
In what is believed to be an Australian first, a robot fruit picker will be working on two Goulburn Valley properties to see if it is a commercially viable alternative to human labour.
The machine, named Clive, built by Australian company Ripe Robotics will roam up and down rows of fruit trees in the orchards of Turnbull Brothers and HV McNab and Son near Shepparton when harvest begins this summer.
“There are some sensors and cameras that, as the mach7ine moves along the row, it can understand where the fruit is in the tree and whether it is an acceptable piece of fruit to harvest, whether it be the right colour or size or if there are any blemishes on the fruit, and then it instructs a suction arm to basically vacuum suck the apple, pear or stone fruit off the tree,” said Mitchell McNab, one of the orchardists taking part in the trial.
Mr McNab has been studying the technology for a number of years and is excited at the prospect of getting to test the equipment during a commercial fruit harvest.
He believes that if Australian growers are going to compete with countries with lower standards and a lower cost of production, technology will have to be the answer.
“The reality is that we operate in the highest cost labour market out of anywhere in the world, and for us to be able to compete on a world scale we need to reduce our cost of labour and as a result our cost of production,” Mr McNab said.
“We can then play on a level playing field of being able to sell our fruit right around the world.”
Technology solution for labour crisis
The industry is desperately looking for answers to a looming labour shortage crisis.
Closed borders have made it difficult for pickers to move within Australia, and that is if there are enough pickers in the country at all.
Traditionally the bulk of Australia’s fruit picking workforce has arrived from overseas, either international backpackers travelling around the country or seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands.
Mr McNab is worried about getting the workers needed for this year’s harvest.
“Typically we rely on the backpacker workforce to fill our harvest crews,” he said.
“There are usually 200,000-odd backpackers coming and going into Australia each year, and recent statistics I’ve seen show that there are only about 30,000 to 40,000 left in the country with a few hundred leaving each week and no more coming in.”
Along with coronavirus, political issues such as the backpacker tax, visa reform and workplace reform have made it more difficult for orchardists to find fruit pickers in recent years.
A commercial harvester paid at a bin rate might be a part of the solution.
Note of caution over robot ethics
While there is a lot of excitement about the possibility of the growing role of robotics on farms, there are some issuing a note of caution when it comes to the ethics of robot use.
Monash University has just released a world-first study looking at the ethics of robot use on farms.
Professor Robert Sparrow echoes the excitement felt by farmers, but says potential downsides need to be acknowledged too — from issues like reducing job opportunities to who owns data produced by robots.
“We do need to keep in mind that people don’t always recognise robots when they arrive,” he said.
“They have in their mind this image of the mechanical man, but if you think of boom irrigation systems that automate, or automation in food packaging and handling, those are robots too.”
Professor Sparrow says he thinks a lot of people are interested in the further development of automated fruit picking and packing, which is topical this season because of worker shortages brought on by COVID-19.
However the introduction of more robots like that could have ethical implications as well.
Another area of concern is the cost of establishing a more automated farm.
“There is also a fear that smaller or struggling farms could miss out on the technology and be unable to keep up, leading to a centralisation of ownership in agriculture,” Professor Sparrow said.
He says there needs to be a “social conversation” about how robots should be used.
“Making the natural world even more industrialised, taking more and more people out of rural areas — not everyone is going to embrace that,” he said.
“A more mundane regulation is needed to decide on things like who controls data that robots produce, and who is responsible when something goes wrong for example.
“These types of questions need to be answered in order to let people use these technologies.”