Startup says time is ripe for fleets of drones to help farmers pick fruit

Startup says time is ripe for fleets of drones to help farmers pick fruit

Israel’s Tevel develops an autonomous flying machine that can harvest fruit carefully and quickly, countering a growing shortage of farmhands

Tevel Aerobotics Technologies has developed a drone that it hopes will help farmers do labor-intensive fruit-picking (Courtesy)
Tevel Aerobotics Technologies has developed a drone that it hopes will help farmers do labor-intensive fruit-picking (Courtesy)

Avocados, mangoes, and apples are on display every morning at the colorful Mahane Yehuda food market in Jerusalem, as well as in many other outdoor and indoor markets across Israel. But what if fruit pickers decided to abandon agriculture and the fruit stands were left empty?

This bleak scenario is threatening to become reality due to an increasing shortage of manpower in the farming workforce. Fewer and fewer people work in agriculture globally, and just 1 percent or so of all Israeli workers are employed in the field, according to the World Bank.

Now, Gedera area-based Tevel Aerobotics Technologies says it has come up with an automated flying machine that can do the labor-intensive fruit-picking quickly and efficiently, taking over from humans in the orchards and greenhouses.

“There is a massive shortage of fruit-picking labor,” Tevel’s founder and CEO Yaniv Maor told The Times of Israel by phone. “Around the world, you can see this problem everywhere you go.”

In the US, China, Japan, Europe and elsewhere, Maor said, there is an increasing gap between fruit consumption, which is growing, and farming manpower, which is declining. While farmers keep investing in land, irrigation, and labor, much of the fruit is left hanging on the trees because there are not enough people to pick it when it is ripe.

Maor claims to have the solution to this problem, reducing the costs for farmers and increasing the yield of their crops.

Tevel’s machine integrates artificial intelligence vision, balancing, maneuvering and perception algorithms, along with mechanical features, sensors and a strong processor, Maor said.

The machine uses a gripper-ended mechanical claw to quickly take fruits from trees one by one, and put them in a bin on the ground.

Maor emphasized that the fruit is picked gently “without causing damage or bruising.” Other mechanized picking techniques are not generally suitable to labor-intensive crops like strawberries, which can be easily squashed by a robotized hand.

Powered with an electrical engine, the drone — either 40 or 80 centimeters in diameter depending on the model — is totally autonomous and only needs an operator for inspection, he added.

Tevel’s prototype is able to recognize fruit types according to their size, color, and ripeness, making it sensitive to the kind of fruit is picking. So far, it can detect oranges and many varieties of apples, and will be able to pick many other kinds of fruit in the future, including mangoes and avocados, Maor said.

Various gripper-models have been developed for each kind of fruit and for other specific tasks, like also pruning and leaf-thinning tasks in orchards and greenhouses. The gripper used for apples looks like a human hand.

The drone will also help farmers optimize their farming patterns and boost yields by allowing them to grow taller fruit trees that can be harvested by drone, Maor added.

Tevel hopes to commercialize its first drones in 2020. Maor said the firm has already lined up potential customers in Israel, the US, and China, and is targeting large fruit companies and growers as well as machinery suppliers and harvesting contractors.

The firm’s aim is to be a service company, setting up joint ventures with growers  as local partners to help them pick their fruit without relying on a temporary labor force hired for the harvesting season, and thus significantly reduce costs.

An illustration of how a drone of Tevel Aerobotics Technologies can help pick fruit (Screenshot)

“People have picked fruit for thousands of years in the exact same way,” Maor said. “Our vision is to transform fruit harvesting from the traditional manual practice to an advanced technological process.”

He said that the cost of the technology will be competitive and that the company’s immediate market — for apple and orange harvesting in the US and Europe — is worth some $5 billion. The worldwide market for fruit picking amounts to some $500 billion per year, he said.

Asked about competitors, Maor said that they generally offer ground robots that are too large for narrow orchards and are much more expensive than Tevel’s flying solution.

Tevel Aerobotics Technologies was founded in August 2016 and employs around 15 people. The company has just concluded its second round of investment, raising around $10 million thanks to the support of angel investors, “very well-known industry experts,” including equity crowdfunding platform OurCrowd and Maverick Ventures (Israel), Maor said.

The company will use the new investments to bring the product into mass production, improve its performance, and set up operations, he added.

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