It looks like a giant vacuum cleaner and it’s set to disrupt the fruit-harvesting business.
Like most startups, Abundant Robotics saw a problem it thought could be solved with technology.
So the Hayward, Calif., company built a prototype, got funding from the likes of Alphabet (GOOGL), and started work.
The goal was to build a robot capable of picking apples as effectively as humans do. That is easier said than done.
Apple harvesting is both hard and delicate work. The picker must identify if the fruit is ripe, then carefully remove it from the tree so it’s not damaged. This blend of fine hand-and-eye coordination is a legitimate skill, not easily copied by a machine.
In an era when giant agricultural combines have replaced tens of thousands of grain workers, fruit picking remains decidedly labor intensive.
Karen Lewis, a tree-fruit expert from Washington State University, told PBS.org that apple harvesting demands 250-350 man-hours per acre. And in the U.S., workers harvest fresh apples from 315,000 to 320,000 acres each year.
“Every piece of fruit in stores in the world today is handpicked,” Lewis said.
Abundant Robotics’ menacing vacuum and noisy collection of hydraulic gears and motors belies its sophistication. Custom sensors scan trees for fruit, then determine if they are ripe. A vacuum then gently sucks the apple from the tree and deftly deposits it into a collection bin without bruising.
It is a significant engineering accomplishment. It is also indicative of how far the robotics industry has come.
Robots are becoming smarter and more capable of performing delicate tasks. They are often the product of extensive computer modeling. They are infused with machine learning. The days of programmer trial-and-error have mostly passed.
Last year, researchers at the University of Washington developed a robot hand so flexible that it learned to twirl a plastic tube between its five digits and to catch objects in midair. The team claims the ADROIT Manipulation platform is more dexterous than humans.
The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) can already perform extremely delicate surgical procedures. In 2016, STAR used its own vision, tools and artificial intelligence to successfully stitch together a pig’s small intestine. Experts deemed its handiwork superior to a human surgeon.
Today, robots routinely perform surgeries like LASIK, knee replacements and hair transplants because the target can be held in place.
However, STAR’s performance was especially startling because the target was not fixed. Pig intestines are soft tissue, and they’re very slippery.
Meanwhile, the da Vinci Surgical System – made by Intuitive Surgical Inc. (ISRG) – can also execute such subtle surgeries. But it’s not autonomous. A human surgeon operates the robot by remote control.
Experts at International Data Corp. see robotics as an industry at a tipping point. Growing capabilities and greater investment are driving down costs. IDC forecasts robotics hardware and software will swell to $135 billion worldwide by 2019. The compound annual growth rate is expected to be a healthy 17%.
There is a downside. Human displacement is already occurring faster than any time in history. And by all accounts, the real boom in robotic spending is still on the horizon. Some of the gloomiest studies suggest fully one-third of U.S. jobs will be lost to machines by 2025.
Humans are anxious about the future. We can see it in global politics.
Still, my job is to find beneficiaries. From cars in Silicon Valley to apples in Washington state, robots lead to productivity gains. They should also lead to new jobs in engineering, semiconductor design and equipment.
When Henry Ford pushed the world into the industrial revolution with the production line, carriage makers were decimated. Jobs were lost. But new industries were created, bringing new employment and prosperity.
It’s hard to predict how the current industrial revolution will play out with certainty and specificity. But investors must get ready.
Near the top of everyone’s buy list should be processed-food robotics companies like John Bean Technologies (JBT), whose shares have been flat-lining all year but should get rolling higher before long.