The day before Halloween, I wrote a story about Pleasanton, Calif.-based Adept Technology Inc., whose automated ClamPAC system is now being used to pack clamshells at San Juan Batista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm.

The next night, following my kids around the dark streets of our neighborhood, I was just a tiny bit afraid of running into someone in a Terminator costume.

Are robots taking over? Should we be scared?

For the fresh produce industry, the answers to those questions are probably “unfortunately, no” and “definitely no.”

Regarding the former, The Packer quoted Dave Barrett, director of the Intelligent Vehicle Laboratory at Franklin W. Olin College, Needham, Mass., saying that orchard robots are closer and more affordable than many in the tree fruit industry realize.

Unfortunately, that story ran in 2007. In the intervening years, stories about mechanization have been few and far between. And when we do report on it, it’s usually automation for packing, palletizing or labeling.

Some growers have had success harvesting commodities like raisin grapes, processing oranges and baby lettuce mechanically, but for the most part if the Terminator revolution is coming you wouldn’t know it by looking at today’s orchards and fields.

Given the labor problems that get worse every year, that’s not the news the industry wants to hear.

Some progress

It was thus a pleasant surprise to hear recent news that Purdue University researchers have received $6 million in grants to develop automatic pruners for fruit trees and vines.

Purdue’s program, tasked with developing and improving machines that use cameras and robotic arms to prune, will be led by Peter Hirst, an associate professor of horticulture at Purdue.

Of the total, $3 million comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative, and another $3 million in matching funds from industry partners and institutional funds.

In the project’s first phase, researchers will work on improving the prototype of an automated grapevine pruner developed by San Diego-based Vision Robotics, one of Purdue’s partners in the venture.

A tractor pulls the Vision Robotics machine over grape vines while cameras capture images of the vines and a computer tells robotic arms where the they should be pruned.

It’s in the prototype phase, but with the cash infusion provides by the grants researchers are optimistic that it can take the next step and become a commercially available device that would save grape growers money.

Purdue also has apple tree pruning in its sights. That project will model trees and how they should be pruned, with the aim of beginning design work on a robotic pruner.

Actually building a robotic apple pruner, however, will have to wait for another round of grants, researchers say. Once the difficult work on an apple pruner is done, though, it should be easier to tweak the technology for plums, peaches, cherries and other tree fruit.

It’s all still a ways down the road, but growers can hope.

And at the rate immigration reform is going, who knows — Congress may pass landmark legislation the same month growers put in the first generation of robot pruners. (Circa 2018?)