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Green machines set to supplant manual labourers

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Green machines set to supplant manual labourers
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Growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables can be slow and often back-breaking work. But what if you had a machine that could lend an automated hand?

American researchers have developed a robot they hope will transform traditional farming methods. Tried and tested in California’s ‘Salad Bowl’ — where for over a century, fruits and vegetables have been planted, thinned and harvested by an army of migrant workers — the new ‘Lettuce Bot’ machine has revolutionary potential.

Thinning a field involves removing plants, or parts of plants, to make room for the growth of others. The ‘Lettuce Bot’ can do this job in the same time it would take 20 workers.

This thinner is part of a new generation of machines targeting the final frontier of agricultural mechanisation – fruits and vegetables destined for fresh markets. Until now, they have been exempt given their sensitivity to bruising.

Labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste and harm to the product.

But as Jorge Heraud, Chief Executive Officer at Blue River Technology, explains, the ‘Lettuce Bot’ is uniquely, and acutely, aware of what it is picking: “With this technology, you can look at every plant and do things more precisely. We can fertilize more precisely. We can apply chemicals more precisely and only to the plants that need it. We can kill weeds without having to blanket spray things. We can gather information. The possibilities are limitless, and what we can definitely do is increase yield.”

Whilst the use of robots in agriculture is hardly new, the technology here certainly is.

The robots are designed to handle these delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as high precision GPS localization technologies.

The ‘Lettuce Bot’ uses visual-recognition software to identify which weeds to eliminate, before squirting a concentrated fertilizer that both kills the unwanted buds and enriches the surrounding soil.

As ever with robotics, displacement of manual labour is a pertinent issue and farm-worker groups have already voiced their concern. In response, advocates of the ‘Lettuce Bot’, claim it will lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, reduce costs, and yield a far more consistent product.

Whether labourers like it or not, these machines seem to be stealing a march. Other green-fingered robots look set to follow.