In as soon as two years, robots, not people, could be picking apples in orchards.
At least, that's the goal of Abundant Robotics, a new agricultural tech company that was officially announced in Menlo Park on Aug. 10.
Three years of research grounding the project have already occurred at SRI International. Research funding has come from SRI International and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, according to CEO Dan Steere, an Atherton resident.
The company's aim, according to Mr. Steere, is "to deliver robotic systems to ease the hardest jobs in agriculture."
More specifically, the company's three co-founders, Mr. Steere, Curt Salisbury and Michael Eriksen, are working on developing an apple-harvesting robot that can drive itself through orchards, "see" apples in trees, and pick them without bruising or damaging the produce, all "at rates which are faster and higher quality than manual labor," Mr. Steere said.
"Many of the healthiest foods for us rely on armies of manual labor (to harvest)," he said. "It simply isn't scaling."
One of the big problems farmers face today is getting enough labor to harvest the fruit when it is ripe, Mr. Steele said. If produce isn't harvested in time, farmers lose their crop, he said.
Improving the efficiency of apple harvesting could increase access to good fruit as the population grows, according to Manish Kothari, Ph.D. and president of SRI Ventures at SRI International.
The robot, as yet unnamed, has so far been tested in Washington state and Australia.
Watch a demo on YouTube, which contains footage from a presentation given in March 2016 and posted online by Good Fruit Grower magazine.