Robotic Apple Picker Nears Commercialization

May 4, 2017 10:52 AM
 
Abundant Robotics prototype

With a $10 million Series A funding announced May 3, Abundant Robotics hopes to get even closer to solving one of precision agriculture’s most complicated challenges – building a robot that can pick an American icon quickly and effectively.

“The problem is, you can’t bruise apples or cut them at all or they lose most of their value,” says Dan Steere, CEO and co-founder of Abundant Robotics.

Steere says the industry has been in search of a solution for decades, and that Abundant Robotics is tantalizingly close to commercialization. The goal is to have a commercial system introduced in time for the 2018 harvest.

The company has spent the past few years building increasingly complex prototypes. With a robotic arm and vision system, the machine is able to recognize apples with a 95% accuracy and uses vacuum force to delicately pluck the fruit from trees. It will need to pick faster and longer than humans to succeed, Steere says.

“It has to work in the full range of weather conditions, and it will be able to work both day and night,” he says.

Steere says the company will focus on a successful commercial launch in the apple industry, but adds the technology could be translated to work in other crops as well.

All told, orchards generate around $200 billion of fresh fruit each year, but manual labor needs have remained unchanged for the past century. Andy Wheeler, general partner at Google Ventures (who led the Series A funding) and other investors are betting that big changes are afoot.

“Growers are eagerly looking for an automation solution to solve labor surge issues, and Abundant Robotics is the first of its kind to meet these specialized needs,” he says. “Between the founding team’s deep expertise in agricultural robotics and the wide potential for expanding beyond apples to adjacent crops, Abundant Robotics is well-positioned to disrupt the orchard harvesting market.”

Steere, who grew up watching his grandfather farm in Louisiana and who is now immersed in the tech industry in California’s Silicon Valley, says he’s glad to be reconnected with the agriculture industry.

“In fact, all three founders of Abundant have strong childhood connections in ag,” he says.

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