IOT: Powering the digital economy

As labor shortages start to bite, robots could soon be picking your strawberries

Key Points
  • While humans have been working the land for thousands of years, the agriculture sector is no stranger to embracing innovation.
  • Artificial intelligence could be set to play a significant role in farming in the coming years. 
How tech is changing the way crops are farmed
How tech is changing the way crops are farmed

The agriculture industry produces the fruits, vegetables, grains and livestock that feed the world.

And while humans have been working the land for thousands of years, the sector is no stranger to embracing innovation. Today, a number of technological breakthroughs from the so called 'agritech' sector are helping to transform the way crops are produced.

One business wants to use robots to perform a backbreaking task — picking strawberries. Designed to carry out its tasks autonomously, the Agrobot uses real-time artificial intelligence (AI) to determine the ripeness of fruit. It also uses "short-range integrated color and infrared depth sensors" to analyze the fruit and record information.

"We have 24 robotic arms — each one is fully independent from the other and each one has a camera," Juan Bravo, Agrobot's CEO, told CNBC's Lubna Takruri.

"Everything is fully autonomous," Bravo said, adding that when the harvester reaches the end of a row it stops by itself and sends data to a human operator. Bravo said that one Agrobot could harvest around 20 acres in three days.

The development of technology that can do the jobs usually reserved for humans is intriguing, especially with labor shortages becoming an increasingly pressing problem.

Last summer, the California Farm Bureau Federation conducted a survey on the subject. Of those farmers that responded, 55 percent said they had experienced employee shortages. For farmers who hired workers on a seasonal basis, 69 percent reported shortages of "varying degrees."

"The shortage of labor for this kind of job is going to get harder and harder," Agrobot's Juan Bravo said. "Even the people that (are) currently… harvesting the strawberries are getting older." Companies are investing in new technology because they "need a solution to keep growing strawberries," Bravo added.

One business looking to embrace cutting edge technology is Driscoll's, a family-run operation that has been around for more than 100 years. Driscoll's has made use of the Agrobot at one of its berry fields in Oxnard, California.

John Erb, VP of social and environmental impact at Driscoll's, told CNBC that agrotech had a role to play in solving problems in the industry. "What it solves is really, trying to take some of the… non-value-added type movements that are difficult, and things that people really don't want to do and automating those aspects," he said.

The business, Erb said, wanted to create opportunities that would allow its workforce to focus on tasks that required "higher intelligence" and that weren't "repetitive in nature."

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