One entry into the robotics agricultural market is an automatic strawberry picker developed by Harvest CROO Robotics in Plant City, Fla. The device picks only ripe fruit and is designed to work 20 hours each day. The harvester should be ready for commercial use by the end of 2018, according to Gary Wishnatzki, cofounder of Harvest CROO and owner of Wish Farms.
Harvest CROO Robotics was established in 2013 as a technology company that focuses on “revolutionizing the agriculture industry with automation.” Wishnatzki says that the company aims for technology that does not require growers to change how they currently grow strawberries.
Harvest CROO recently received a patent for its invention, the Pitzer Wheel, which is considered an integral component in the technology, says Wishnatzki. The picking wheel, named after cofounder and inventor Bob Pitzer, uses conservation of motion instead of a “pick-and-move” motion.
“It is able to rapidly pick a plant without having to stop and move the fruit. Instead, the wheel spins and the next claw is positioned to pick the next berry on the plant. When a berry reaches the top of the wheel, it is released into a cup and then transferred to the packing platform,” says Wishnatzki.
The fruit is then inspected a second time before being placed into consumer packs. No human intervention is needed throughout this process. The harvesting machines handle the fruit gently with soft food-grade silicon rubber claws. “I have said that the harvester will be similar to autonomous automobiles in that they will not have to be perfect. They will just need to be better than humans,” he adds.
According to Wishnatzki, the need for automation in agriculture is expected to grow in coming years, particularly as the human labor force available for this type of harvesting continues to shrink. “Without robotics, U.S. agriculture has a very bleak future. The shrinking labor force is a long-term trend, with no relief in sight. With robotics we will be able to keep farming relevant and competitive in developed markets like the U.S.”
Although the company is focused currently on strawberry harvesting, its technology is transferrable to other crops, says Wishnatzki. “Strawberry harvesting is just the beginning for us. My vision is for Harvest CROO Robotics to be a leader in ag robotics. The strawberry industry in the U.S. alone spends nearly $1 billion per year. The overall market in the U.S. for farm automation is tens of billions of dollars annually.”