Robotic Olive Harvesters Might Be on the Horizon

Google's parent company is investing in agricultural robots that could someday be used to harvest olives.

By Shawn Mitchell
Jul. 11, 2017 11:48 UTC

The future of agri­cul­ture is fast approach­ing and could dra­mat­i­cally affect olive oil pro­duc­tion costs. Abundant Robotics in Hayward, California is pro­to­typ­ing a fruit-picker that employs arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to deter­mine the opti­mal time to pick fruit as it vac­u­ums the prod­uct into a col­lec­tion bin.

The machine is cur­rently being tested on apples, but the com­pany founders antic­i­pate branch­ing out into other fruit in the future.

After secur­ing a $10 mil­lion invest­ment from Google Ventures, Yamaha Motor Company, and oth­ers, Abundant Robotics is poised to dis­rupt tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural meth­ods for har­vest­ing, includ­ing olives.

While the company’s cur­rent focus is on apple orchards in the United States and Australia, its vac­uum har­vest­ing tech­nol­ogy could also prove to be use­ful for olives, which are tra­di­tion­ally picked by hand because of their del­i­cate skin.

Using com­plex algo­rithms, Abundant’s har­vest­ing robot can dis­tin­guish a piece of fruit from its sur­round­ing leaves. Next, through a num­ber of visual vari­ables, the robot can deter­mine whether the fruit has achieved opti­mal ripeness and make the deci­sion to pick it.

The har­vester then aligns its vac­uum and removes the fruit from the tree. The machine can har­vest around the clock, using spe­cial imag­ing tech­nol­ogy at night.

Mechanized olive har­vest­ing often entails large machines that shake or envelop trees with large rakes or brushes. However, shak­ing could pose chal­lenges to a tree’s root struc­ture, while older, more irreg­u­larly-shaped olive trees may not fit inside the body of a mechan­i­cal har­vester. Using a robotic vac­uum might allow for more ver­sa­til­ity.

The arrival of auto­mated har­vest­ing could have a dra­matic impact on the sea­sonal labor force of the largest olive oil pro­duc­ers.

In Spain, unem­ploy­ment rose to 18.8 per­cent in the first quar­ter of 2017, while Italy and Greece cur­rently have rates around 11.3 and 21.7 per­cent, respec­tively. These coun­tries have also seen large influxes of eco­nomic migrants and refugees in recent years, increas­ing com­pe­ti­tion for jobs in labor-inten­sive indus­tries like agri­cul­ture.

As a result, the cost of sea­sonal labor in olive har­vest­ing will prob­a­bly be kept rel­a­tively low for Mediterranean pro­duc­ers in the near-term, mak­ing large-scale cap­i­tal invest­ments in robot­ics unlikely for all but the largest agri­cul­tural firms in the region.

In the United States, fruit and nut farms cur­rently employ roughly 41 per­cent of the country’s agri­cul­tural work­ers, or almost 200,000 peo­ple. Of this fig­ure, one-sixth of the work­force is com­prised of migrants. However, anti-immi­gra­tion pres­sures and increases to the min­i­mum wage could force pro­duc­ers to accel­er­ate the deploy­ment of agri­cul­tural tech­nolo­gies in the United States as the costs of cap­i­tal and labor reach par­ity.

As robots in the field con­tinue to advance and more com­peti­tors enter the mar­ket­place, the price for auto­mated har­vesters will become increas­ingly com­pet­i­tive. For olive oil pro­duc­ers who depend on speed and effi­ciency to press, bot­tle, and deliver a high-qual­ity prod­uct to their cus­tomers, the opti­mal price point for a robot that can work day and night with near-per­fect accu­racy may arrive sooner than later.


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