Opinion: AI means a future of 'robocrops' is on the way

  • Opinion
  • 17/04/2019

By Mike Chapman

OPINION: New Zealand's growers are, and have always been, great innovators. 

The main impediments to adoption of technology are cost, access, and expertise. However, whether it's robotics or artificial intelligence (AI), adoption of new technology is usually quite high; provided, of course, it makes a tangible difference to the operation. 

A recent example is T&G Global using a robotic harvester for the commercial apple harvest this season - a world-first. This took four years of working with US-based technology partner Abundant Robotics to develop the tech, as well as designing new orchard layouts to enable this robotic picking. T&G's Chief Operating Officer, Peter Langdon-Lane, has noted that it will be some years before all T&G orchards are harvested in this way, but the key point is that this is the start of robotics becoming genuinely useful in picking. 

There are some significant advantages to picking apples with robots. The first is that these robots can pick at night, meaning there can be round the clock picking, and picking at exactly the right time is vital to maintain fruit quality and get premium prices overseas.

Additionally, robotic pickers can be used to supplement humans not just at night, but at higher, hard to reach parts of the trees. This would mean human pickers wouldn't need to use ladders, and could concentrate on the apples closer to the ground. And, of course, new employment opportunities will be opened up to build and maintain these robots.

The key is that, as robots become more mainstream, the intense need for human pickers will reduce, and people can move on to other, higher-skilled tasks. This will vastly alleviate the chronic shortage of pickers we face every season, all while increasing productivity.

The introduction of robotics could vastly alleviate the chronic shortage of pickers the industry faces every season, all while increasing productivity, says Mike Chapman.
The introduction of robotics could vastly alleviate the chronic shortage of pickers the industry faces every season, all while increasing productivity, says Mike Chapman. Photo credit: Supplied

This is just one example of the how robotics can change how horticulture operates. But affecting widespread change will take time, effort, and a lot of innovation. Different crops have different harvest requirements; our robot workers will need to be purpose-built for individual crops. Moreover, where we get the robots is tricky; this particular robot was designed predominantly in the United States.

There are, however, New Zealand and Australian initiatives to develop robotics for horticulture's work, and New Zealand is a world leader in the development of packhouse mechanisation.This is all well and good, but the immediate problem remains that for at least the next five to 10 years, we will likely face a shortage of workers for harvest and fieldwork.

Horticulture needs to invest in technology, robotics, and AI development, but we cannot focus on the future so much that we don't address our current and pressing labour shortages. Until we have these robotic systems, we need to develop the programmes and support to enable all available New Zealanders to get into work and to progressively upskill for when robots are more common than today.  

Robots won't be picking all of our crops next year, no, but these trials show that a future of 'robocrops' is definitely on the way.

Mike Chapman is the CEO of Horticulture NZ.