Robots are replacing human workers at a faster pace than any other point in history. Most of these robots are in factories, but a new kind of mechanized worker has hit apple orchards.

Abundant Robotics in California has built an automated apple picker, that uses a vacuum system to suck the fruit straight off of the trees.

“As a kid in Louisiana I was inspired by agricultural equipment such as combines, cotton pickers, and tractors,” Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere told the Newshour. “The work we’re doing is an extension of several hundreds of years of technology innovation for agriculture.”

Testing for the picker is underway in Australia, where apples are in season. In the autumn, the prototype will return to the United States and will continue testing in Washington, where apple orchards are a significant part of the economy. In 2004, 58 percent of apples grown in the U.S. came from Washington.

“The robot’s got to be able to identify an apple, and then after that, tell if it is ripe. It takes a lot of specialized sensors and cameras to do that.” Credit: Good Fruit Grower Youtube

“Harvesting apples isn’t an unskilled job. It’s highly skilled and difficult work,” Todd Fryhover from the Washington Apple Commission told NewsHour. “Robotics will help in harvesting the apples at the optimum time to provide the best possible apple to consumers.

Unlike other kinds of harvesting, fruit picking requires the type of precision only capable by human eyes and hands. You can’t just chop down the plant, like wheat, and scoop up what’s there.

“The robot’s got to be able to identify an apple, and then after that, tell if it is ripe,” said Dan Swafford, an agricultural technologist at Virginia Tech. “It takes a lot of specialized sensors and cameras to do that, and then they have to be able to pick the fruit without damaging it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the seasonal laborer workforce—who typically picks tree fruit—can vary dramatically in size from one harvest to the next, said Karen Lewis, a tree-fruit specialist at Washington State University.

“We grow in the United States, between 315,000 and 320,000 acres of apples for fresh market … the labor demand per year ranges from 250 to 350 man-hours per acre. That is not small,” Lewis said. “Every piece of tree-fruit in stores, in the world today is handpicked,” she said.

The private sector has been looking to mechanize fruit picking for years, Swafford said, and those efforts haven’t focused only on apples. Experimental orange-picking machines underwent testing in 2004.

By removing workers from the equation, farms can continue to harvest food during labor shortages. Fruit and nut farms employ 41 percent of the nation’s agricultural work force, and one-sixth of the work force claim to be migrants. Fruit and tree nut farms employed, on average, 196,000 people, while about 40,000 on average worked at apple orchards, according to 2015 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But not all officials are racing to supplant these workers through automation, especially since the large-scale rollout of these robots is likely years away.

“It’s no secret we’re facing a serious labor shortage in agriculture so seeing companies devote time and funding to new technology is welcomed,” Jim Bair, President and CEO of the U.S. Apple Association told the NewsHour via email. “But in the meantime the larger conversation is the need to reform our labor laws. We need a new guest worker program that meets the needs of a diverse agriculture industry and provides a stable, reliable and legal workforce.”

“We are calling for an overhaul of the H2-A visa program, maintaining the spirit of the program but increasing its capacity and responsiveness,” Bair added.

Currently, there are a few pieces of robotic farm equipment on the market. There are self-driving tractors and automated weed whackers.

If autonomous agriculture takes off, then at some point in the future, you might be eating an apple that was planted, watered, picked, sorted and driven to your local grocery store without any human intervention. Abundant Robotics has attracted the attention of and received venture capital from a bushel of big tech names, such as Google and SRI International.

“Obviously replacing hand labor in the orchards is highly dependent upon the orchard system,” Fryhover said. “But our industry is embracing efficiency and technology at every level. We’re very excited to see new science applied to our industry.

This article is reprinted with permission from PBS NewsHour. It was first published on May 17, 2017.