– Robotics in the strawberry fields –
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is an adage that’s behind a lot of farming innovations. Plenty of invention is going on right now in Florida’s strawberry fields with one question in mind: Who will pick the strawberries?
“The labor force, as everybody knows, has been shrinking nationwide,” said Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Plant City-based Wish Farms. “Some producers have had to resort to the H-2A visa program, which is not the first choice, but is the necessary evil right now. So everybody is desperate for a solution. If there’s an automated solution that can provide the same service as the human harvesters can provide, growers would probably flock to it.”
Wishnatzki should know. He has had 41 years of experience in the strawberry industry. Wish Farms has been in operation and owned by Wishnatzki’s family since 1922. Gary’s grandfather, Harris, first came to Florida to buy strawberries in 1929. Today the company operates 2,000 acres of farmland in Florida and works with independent strawberry farmers in California.
In 2013 Wishnatzki formed a company with Bob Pitzer, a mechanical engineer and expert in robotics, to develop robotics for agriculture. The company, Harvest CROO Robotics, was established “as a technology company focused on revolutionizing the agriculture industry with automation,” Wishnatzki said. CROO stands for computerized robotic optimized obtainer.
Harvest CROO is not owned or run by Wish Farms, Wishnatzki said. Wishnatzki and Pitzer are partners. “Bob’s the brains. I focus on providing the financing and the inspiration,” Wishnatzki said.
“The whole thing is that either we’re going to figure this out with automated solutions – not just with strawberries, but with other crops as well – or these crops are not going to be grown in the quantities they’re grown in now.” – Gary Wishnatzki
Eight other strawberry growers also are providing backing for the project.
“We’re making some good strides in partnering with growers. And we’ve applied for some grants and are tapping other resources. We’ve already raised about $1.5 million, but we have a ways to go yet. We’ll probably need another $3 million to get it into production,” Wishnatzki said.
Wishnatzki firmly believes the future of his industry is on the line and that automation can’t come too soon. “The whole thing is that either we’re going to figure this out with automated solutions – not just with strawberries, but with other crops as well – or these crops are not going to be grown in the quantities they’re grown in now. Or they’re going to move offshore because we just won’t have the labor here. The people who are here who are doing the work are getting older, and there are fewer people coming in to replace them,” Wishnatzki said.
There have been other attempts to develop strawberry harvesting machines, but growers would have to change how they grow the strawberries, Wishnatzki said. “They’ve developed technology that will pick strawberries, but you have to change to expensive growing systems. It would be a costly conversion and one that’s not likely to happen in my opinion, simply because the current situation hasn’t gotten bad enough. In other words, for people to go to that, the price of berries would have to go up dramatically to justify the added expense in the way the berries are grown. The industry would be much smaller.”
Wishnatzki challenged Pitzer to develop a strawberry picker that would not force growers to radically change how they farm. It had to be something that could be used on conventional strawberry beds. And it had to be fast and affordable.
The prototype design is based on a picking head that will pick an individual strawberry plant by centering on the plant and spinning 360 degrees all the way around it. It would move the leaves to get to the berries, rapidly find them with a computerized vision system, and pick them with a claw.
“The vision part has been done before in other applications, but some of the intellectual property we have done is unique. Our first patent revolves around this picking wheel, and this patent was just recently published. It’s called the Pitzer Wheel and it’s what is going to give us our commercial speed,” Wishnatzki said. “It’s one thing to figure out how to get a robotic arm to pick a berry. It’s another thing to do it for a price and at a speed that’s commercially viable. That’s what this patent on the picking wheel affords us.”
Wishnatzki describes the claw system. “The wheel has a series of claws on it. So rather than having to pick the berry and move it somewhere, the claw picks the berry and the wheel rotates up and then the next claw picks the next berry. So we can pick, pick, pick on a plant without having to move the berries anywhere. The machine is holding it in the claw until it gets to a position on the wheel where it’s released and gets transferred to another part of the machine where it will be packed into consumer units.”
The robotic system will be autonomous, Wishnatzki said. “It will be self-driving. These machines are going to pick and pack and drive themselves in the field. GPS on tractors is nothing new, but you still have to have a human driver because it doesn’t have the collision avoidance systems and mapping systems that these machines will have.”
Wishnatzki said there’s a long list of benefits in addition to the primary goal of using a smaller labor force. “We believe we’ll increase growers’ yields by at least 10 percent,” Wishnatzki said. “Where I get the 10 percent from is because when we pack fruit on the platform, we’re going to be weighing packages. Currently, berries are packed visually in the field and by most estimates it’s well over 10 percent on the over-packs. On some of the larger packages, the two- and four-pounders, it could be as much as 50 percent at times. So, 10 percent is a conservative number based on how many packages the grower would be able to make because they’re not giving fruit away.”
On the other side of the coin is the occasional short-weight. “If a receiver finds one container that’s short, the entire truckload of fruit could be rejected. We’re trying to hit the sweet spot of where the weight should be – a little bit over to make sure it’s not short-weighed, but not to give away as much fruit as we’re giving away now,” he explained.
Another benefit, Wishnatzki said, is energy savings at the cooler. “These machines are going to be running day and night, not just during an eight- to10-hour window. We’ll be picking 20 hours a day. So that means growers will be picking berries during the cooler part of the day. It’ll take less energy to cool those flats that are picked at that time. Your downtime would be during the hottest part of the day. Now, you get some bottlenecks late in the afternoon when a lot of the warm fruit is piling in. So, if it was trickling in over a longer period of time, you would actually be able to plant more acres without having to create more cooling capacity. So, there’s energy saving as well as better utilization of facilities.”
The machines also will enable more accurate forecasting, Wishnatzki added. “Because we’re going through the fields every few days taking pictures of all the plants, we can begin to build algorithms to forecast the crops a week or more, which will help in the marketing of the crop”
“And when you’re going through the field doing this, we’ll be able to do some of the things people use drones for,” Wishnatzki said. “We’ll be able to measure all kinds of things and pinpoint hot spots in the field – be it spider mites or botrytis or anything we see a flare-up of, so effectively we could save on pesticide usage because of being able to pinpoint exactly with GPS coordinates where a problem in the field is.”
And last but not least on the list of benefits, Wishnatzki said, is that growers would be able to reduce plastic use by about 30 percent. “That’s because we’re looking at packaging that’s not clamshells, but would be a base plastic unit with a film lid. So by eliminating the hinged clamshell, you could save 30 percent on plastic,” he said.
Once the machines are ready for prime time, Wishnatzki said, Harvest CROO will lease them to growers.
Producers “won’t be investing in machines that may become outdated because of newer machinery,” he said.
Wishnatzki emphasized that the robotics are still in the prototype stage. Right now, Wishnatzki said, development is well within target. “We really believe we’re going to be able to do this economically and it will be less expensive than humans in the near future. I don’t think there will be a problem getting growers to accept this. I think they’re hungry for a solution.
“It’s going to be a game-changer. There’s no question in my mind.”