Robots are taking over in the fields. Picking and tending to crops — jobs that low-wage human laborers normally fill — are now being entrusted to machines that use computers and vision sensors to perform the job just as well as humans, according to NPR.
Thinning a field of lettuce is a task that requires 20 people with farm hoes. But a tractor called the lettuce thinner, developed by Frank Maconachy, president and CEO of Ramsay Highlander, can do it just as well. Because of immigration policies and enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, California growers can’t find enough laborers to work their fields, so they’re employing these machines for a cheaper cost.
The tractor uses a vision system to locate seedlings, then sends their location to the tractor’s computer, which determines which seedlings to keep and which to get rid of. With a shot of fertilizer, it destroys the unwanted seedlings. In just a few minutes, a whole row of lettuce is thinned, and it only takes one robot.
Maconachy's company’s latest design is a robotic picker that finds a head of lettuce and picks it. This robot relies on a similar vision system as that of the lettuce thinner.
The cost of the lettuce thinner starts at $250,000, and some farm machines cost as much as $600,000. Smaller farms that can't afford robots could fall behind if they can’t keep up with production.