Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Get ready for a robot invasion in rice fields

Vicky Boyd
Vicky Boyd

The folks behind Harvest CROO, a robotic strawberry harvester nearing commercialization, recently sent a press release about how the automated machine can pick at least 20 hours per day, including weekends, and harvest 95 percent of the fruit off a plant.

One of the masterminds behind the machine is Florida strawberry grower Gary Wishnatzki, who was having a tough time finding harvest crews and only saw the problem getting worse. Unlike rice, which is cut once or maybe twice, strawberries are picked every day to two days and only ripe ones are selected. The season also runs for months, requiring hundreds of workers for large operations.

During the 2018 rice harvest, I rode in a combine in South Louisiana that had hands-free steering. The only time the grower touched the steering wheel was to go around a small rut or to turn the machine around at the end of the turn-row.

At the same time, Google, Uber and a few other firms are developing self-driving cars. As part of their testing, people pose as pedestrians to see how the vehicles would avoid running over them. Combine drivers don’t face nearly the obstacles, except for the occasional skunk, raccoon or gator sauntering across a field or a power pole on the side.

Simple obstacle-avoidance technology already is available to the general public as part of the robotic vacuum, Roomba. The circular machine, which retails for less than $300, can detect table legs, chairs, walls and even stairs and avoid crashing into them as it vacuums a carpet.

Last year, I also watched Drone Deploy, a software program for drones, fly a field without a pilot at the controls because the user had previously entered GPS coordinates for the field boundaries.

When you factor in the complexities of a robotic strawberry harvester with combines’ existing hands-free technology, Roomba’s obstacle avoidance and Drone Deploy’s auto-fly, manufacturers already have the know-how to develop truly robotic rice harvesters. The question then becomes, will growers pay for a machine that only displaces a few workers?

To answer that, one has only to look at the cotton industry and its quick adoption of the round-bale picker. No longer does the picker driver need to stop to empty the full basket into a boll buggy and have a worker drive the buggy to a nearby module builder. Cotton farmers also don’t need crews to run module builders.

As finding and keeping reliable employees becomes tougher and more costly, the demand for robotic rice combines will only become greater. We may not be there quite yet, but the day is coming that combines will drive themselves.

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