Vineyard robot to counter labour shortages

Posted on 19 Jul 2017 by Jonny Williamson

A remote operated vineyard robot has been developed in an effort to help solve a chronic agricultural labour shortage.

The remote operated vineyard robot keeps a human operator in the loop via a virtual reality (VR) interface – image courtesy of Digital Harvest.
The remote operated vineyard robot keeps a human operator in the loop via a virtual reality (VR) interface – image courtesy of Digital Harvest.

Developed over the past 18 months by Virginia-based agri solutions company Digital Harvest, the remote operated vineyard robot (ROVR) is described as a “fully mobile concept demonstrator”.

The ROVR robotic worker system reportedly bypasses many of the long-standing technical challenges of machine learning and intelligence by keeping a human operator in the loop via a virtual reality (VR) interface.

CEO of Digital Harvest, Young Kim explained: “We tried many types of tools to operate the robotic arms, such as joysticks and game controllers, but none were capable of allowing the system to operate at the similar level of accuracy or speed as traditional skilled workers.

“By using Virtual Reality as an operator interface, we not only improved manual dexterity, but also opened up the possibility of human workers being able to teleport to work from anywhere.”

Industrial robots are increasingly taking over the low-level, dirty or dangerous tasks for workers, with automation systems prevalent with manufacturing and engineering organisations the world over. However, their presence outside the factory is another story.

Robotics researchers and innovators (with few exceptions) have yet to realise the goal of developing cost-effective robots capable of replicating the productivity of skilled farm workers, and that’s despite tens of thousands of man-hours and huge sums of money, according to Digital Harvest.

As the labour force that tree and vine fruit growers depend on continues to decline, the complexities and costs associated with finding new workers have left the industry in crisis.

Multiple surveys of fruit and vegetable growers across several territories have confirmed that labour is the number one challenge facing agricultural growth.

In the UK, there is currently great uncertainty regarding future access to EU workers, many of which work on farms picking fruit and vegetables. This is compounding the already serious issue of the industry’s aging workforce, with many thousands of workers set to retire over the next 10 years.

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