Abundant Robotics robot apple picking machine

Google and Apple together in an investment deal? Wait, it appears to be Google and apples—as in the fruit.

GV (formerly known as Google Ventures) is among those leading an investment round for Abundant Robotics, a Hayward, Calif.-based company whose robotic apple-picking machine has gained a lot of interest from the agricultural and financial sectors. Well into several trials, the device uses a combination of robotics and AI (in the forms of computer vision) to gently pluck apples from trees and carefully place them in bins for washing and packaging.  The $10 million Series A round will be used to commercialize the product.

Dan Steere, co-founder and CEO of Abundant Robotics says the path from prototype to the current stage—ready for commercialization within a year—is a slow and patient process. “The biggest challenge is understanding when you’re at a point with a set of technology that you can move from research to actually building a useful product, and that’s the hard part about startups; understanding when the capabilities are really ready,” Steere told AgFunder News in a recent interview. “In our case, there was a lot of foundational work and early research.  It wasn’t clear what we were trying to do would work, so there was a lot of interaction with growers though prototypes and real world testing to prove we were on the right track.”

Steere’s team at Abundant Robotics came from SRI International, a non-profit research center, with its members bringing backgrounds in robotics and software. The initial funding to build a prototype came from The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission which seems logical given Washington is among the leading apple-producing states in the country. Another investor in the company is BayWa, a German agricultural investment firm with interests in the New Zealand Envy Apple business.

The harvesting art of the robotics device is a refinement of previous technology-based attempts at reducing labor costs and increasing efficiencies in harvesting. What sets Abundant Robotics apart is its computer vision system which is able to identify the apple on the tree aside from the tree branches and other foliage. By carefully pinpointing the apple, there is less chance of damaging the fruit and the tree. The apple is then carefully plucked from the tree and softly put into the device’s bin.

Abundant Robotics is by no means alone in its quest to bring technology to the harvesting process. FFRobotics, an Israeli firm also is working on a similar solution which it claims can gently pick 10 times as much fruit as the average field worker. The company hopes to be in field testing by the end of the year.

Beyond fruit picking, Blue River Technology, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has smart boxes that hook on to tractors which identify the optimal location to plant, the right time to fertilize as well as the best time to harvest. Autonomous harvesting is gaining a lot of traction in Europe (perhaps even more than in the U.S.) with projects such as CROPS (Clever Robots for Crops) a Pan-European project sponsored by the EU. The goal is automation of the agricultural business and has manifested in such work as a greenhouse robotic pepper picker.

While certainly a delicate subject, the issue of replacing farm workers with robots must be addressed.

“Who knows what this administration will do or not do (related to immigration)?” said Jim McFerson, head of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. For farmers, “it’s a question of survival.”

Beyond immigration issues, there is grave concern among those farm workers whose livelihoods depend on regular work. The eventual loss of jobs for humans will be huge, said Erik Nicholson of Seattle, an official with the United Farm Workers union.

“They are scared of losing their jobs to mechanization,” Nicholson said. “A robot is not going to rent a house, buy clothing for their kids, buy food in a grocery and reinvest that money in the local economy.”