Enterprise Story: WSU extension scientists working to pair robots with humans for better harvest

Brief Outline:

I). Introduction/Scope of the Developments/Labor Concerns

II). WSU Scientists Goals/Quotes

III). Concern Over Cut Jobs

IV). What’s to Come/Funding Wrap-Up/Closing Quote

WSU extension scientists working to pair robots with humans for better harvest

By: Zack Menchel

PROSSER, Wash. Apples mean big business in the state of Washington, an estimated $2.5 billion business annually to be exact.

In fact, over half the world’s supply of fresh apples intended for consumption are picked in Washington orchards.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that leading scientists at Washington State University are teaming up to research and develop innovative new technologies that will provide growers with a more cost and labor efficient strategy to harvest their bumper crop, apples.

“As yields go up, we need to figure out different ways to harvest this fruit because labor is not only unreliable but the cost of it is going up,” said Karen Lewis, a WSU extension tree fruit specialist.

“Growers are looking at all kinds of ways to increase the efficiencies of a very large harvest.”

In conjunction with Lewis, Changki Mo, and Qin Zhang, Dr. Manoj Karkee, an assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) at WSU is working on creating various robotic systems that will collaborate with humans in the process of picking tree fruit from orchards.

“This is the best place in the world to grow apples, its what we do best and what we strive to continue to do,” said Kate Evans, associate professor at the WSU Tree Fruit Research Center.

“We just need to figure out ways to stay profitable while doing it.”

Karkee’s team was recently awarded a $548,000 grant towards funding the research and eventual release of a prototype robotic hand that features force and pressure measuring sensors intended to enhance the delicate process of picking apples and other fruit from trees.

The potential mobile fruit identifier unit with a touch-screen interface also will see humans and robots in cahoots during harvest.

“Within the scope of this project, my associates and I are striving to create innovative new technologies commercially available to the growers for the long-term sustainability of their businesses and agriculture in the community as a whole,” Karkee said.

“We hope our work can in time make a lasting impact on this industry through economic and environmental growth and profit.”

Although the development of the prototype hand is still in the early stages, the team of scientists has begun the meticulous process of collecting data relating to the growth patterns of apples as well as conducting a study of the most effective hand motion utilized when collecting tree fruit be it rotating, twisting, pulling, etc.

One thing that observers are worrying about regarding the gradual advancement of tree picking robot technology is backlash due to the elimination of jobs within the agricultural workforce.

“While that is possibility, the upside is that there will be a lot of new high-tech equipment that will need to be serviced and monitored in the field,” said Brian Clark, a director of agricultural education at WSU.

“Leading researchers have long been searching for ways to automate and mechanize some of these agricultural tasks due to a crisis of labor shortage.”

According to Karkee, we should be viewing the technology as eliminating the problem of not having enough workers, rather than wiping out workers completely.

This is because there is already a lack of workers available for labor-intensive, seasonal operation such as tree fruit picking.

“We’d create higher-paying, employment job opportunities for workers to operate and maintain the technology,” said Karkee.

“This will in turn lead to a better economic, social, and cultural environment in these rural communities in Washington as well as around the country.”

Karkee made it known theat growers are very interested in applying his team’s technology to their operations.

“We hope to see a prototype field test within the next three years and if we can secure continuous funding for another 5-10 years, our goal would be to make it commercially available worldwide,” Karkee said.

The grant currently providing funding for Karkee and his team is being issued by the National Robot Initiative, and USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture among other programs.

“Our technology has been relatively successful and that makes for an industry that is willing to fund and engage in the process of experimenting with and validating new technology,” said Lewis.

“This is most certainly a great time to introduce new technology to this industry, it’s truly very exciting.”


-Brian Clark, WSU Associate Executive Director of University Communications/Agricultural Research Writer
Interviewed in person (on video)

Interview with Brian Clark:

-Kate Evans, Extension Associate Professor/Scientist at WSU Tree Fruit Research Center
(509)663-8181 Ext. 245
Interviewed via phone

-Manoj Karkee, Ph.D., WSU Assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS)
Interviewed via phone

-Karen Lewis, WSU Extension Tree Fruit Specialist
(509)754-2011 Ext. 413
Interviewed via phone


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