Advances in computer vision and robotic dexterity may reach the field just in time to save U.S. agriculture from a looming labor shortage.

What happened: CNN Business surveyed the latest crop of AI-powered farmbots, highlighting those capable of picking tender produce, working long hours, and withstanding outdoor conditions.

Robot field hands: Harvest bots tend to use two types of computer vision: one to identify ripe fruits or vegetables, the other to guide the picker.

  • Vegebot, a lettuce harvester developed at the University of Cambridge, spots healthy, mature heads of lettuce with 91 percent accuracy and slices them into a basket using a blade powered by compressed air. The prototype harvests a head in 30 seconds, compared to a human’s 10-second average. The inventors say with lighter materials, they could catch up.
  • Agrobot’s strawberry-picking tricycle straddles three rows of plants. It plucks fragile berries using up to 24 mechanical hands, each equipped with a camera that grades the fruit for ripeness.
  • California’s Abundant Robotics built a rugged, all-weather autonomous tractor that vacuums up ripe apples (pictured above).

Behind the news: Unauthorized migrants do as much as 70 percent of U.S. harvest work, according to a study by the American Farm Bureau Association. Tighter immigration policies and improving opportunities at home increasingly keep such workers out of the country.

Why it matters: The shortage of agricultural workers extends across North America. During harvest season, that means good produce is left to rot in the fields. The situation costs farmers millions in revenue and drives up food prices.

Our take: The robots-are-coming-for-your-job narrative often focuses on people put out of work but fails to acknowledge that workers aren’t always available. Between a swelling human population and emerging challenges brought on by climate change, the agriculture industry needs reliable labor more than ever. In some cases, that could be a machine.


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