LABOUR is not going to get any cheaper, so bring on the robots.
It was the basic thrust of Steve Saunders’ message during the Apple and Pear Australia Limited concurrent session at Hort Connections 2018.
Mr Saunders is the owner and board chairman of the New Zealand-based, Robotics Plus.
He has more than 34 years of experience and expertise in the New Zealand horticulture industry across a range of areas.
Of all the issues facing agriculture presently, Mr Saunders said labour was the big one.
“This is rapidly becoming the dominant global challenge across intensive agricultural operations,” he said.
It is here where robotics and automation could make a significant impact.
He predicted that all farm equipment and vehicles will:
- have the ability to operate autonomously;
- will have some form of artificial intelligence;
- contain sensors to sense the environment;
- be connected to the internet.
“We are starting to see people being trained with virtual reality and learning to how to drive a forklift, or whatever,” he said.
He showed videos of some of his own autonomous, four-armed robots picking kiwifruit and also rapidly pollinating a crop.
“People are trying to create fruit picking robots. I've been all around the world and seen them; there's still a ways to go," he said.
He encouraged growers and the entire industry to encourage with the possibilities.
“Whatever research project you are doing, you've really got to drive those outcomes you want from research,” he said.
We've got to be realistic in the hort industry that an Amazon or a Google isn't going to come along and solve our problems for us.- Steve Saunders, RoboticsPlus
“I'm a big believer that we aren't going to solve these problems without collaboration.
”For me it's just been about this journey of investing in my future value chain.
"We've got to be realistic in the hort industry that an Amazon or a Google isn't going to come along and solve our problems for us."
"We have to start to think about how we grow for the future as well. It's got to be industry driven and it's got to be industry connected.”
But he said the developments in horticulture were somewhat slow moving.
“I’ve still got my strawberry picking bag from 30 years ago and could still be used today,” he said, while showing a photograph of modern day pickers harvesting strawberries by hand.