I wish it weren’t so, but I’m always seduced by talk of robots. Robots that will clean your house, do your laundry, make your dinner, take care of ailing parents, teach kids to read.

Technology innovations could bring food safety solutions

Dawn Withers
Staff Writer

Even with all those Isaac Asimov-inspired cautionary tales of robots turning on their human masters, I still think having robots around to do the menial tasks that take up so much of our lives would be really cool.

So when I heard a panel of technology experts talk about robots that could one day pick apples or sort through floral cuttings or apply pesticides, I imagined the innumerable list of produce problems solved by cutting edge technology.

Of course, not all of these produce robot jobs are possible yet, but one day they might be.

The technology gurus were speaking at the Western Growers Association annual meeting in November, offering insight into how the industry could benefit from military-created technologies on the farm.

One expert in particular, Jeff Legault, associate director of business development at the National Robotics Engineering Center, Carnegie Mellon University, captured my interest with his research on creating robots with tactile skills comparable to that of humans.

Like most technological innovation, Legault said the prototypes are not ready for commercial application yet (it may well be another 10 years before that happens), but could solve, at least for some companies, labor shortages from lack of legal workers for each harvest.

The biggest challenge for wider harvest applications for machines, Legault said, is creating a machine that mimics the human hand.

While it is possible to mechanically harvest apples, Legualt said no one does it because it’s expensive and takes far longer than human harvesters, and the machines crush the fruit because they doesn’t understand how to handle something like an apple.

But — and this is where I fall under the spell of robotic possibilities — such mechanized harvesting could change everything.

Legault showed videos of driverless tractors that stop themselves mid-field to avoid running into an object like a rock or a person, and remotely piloted machines that can spray orange trees with pesticides but stop if they detect a person nearby.
These are already in use, though not widely.

True, for the most part this technology is still the stuff of lab experiments, but moving away from field harvesting, the offerings become a bit more feasible.

Like a device, for example, that scans the vein patterns on the back of your hand to verify your identity and grant access to a sensitive office or building.

Patrick Trail, president and chief executive officer of T3 Technologies, called it “vein identification” and said it could be the solution for produce companies concerned with sanitation in their warehouses or processing facilities because workers don’t need to touch anything to have their veins scanned.

If the hands don’t work, scanning irises is another option.

All the talk about robotics underscores the need for one thing — security. Produce isn’t just a quaint industry with warm and fuzzy stories of family growers.

It’s a major part of the U.S. food supply, and all the recalls and food safety scares are emblematic of our need for safe food from a supply chain that right now is vulnerable to the hazards of bacterial contamination or worse.

We may never see an apple orchard harvested entirely by machines, but maybe that shouldn’t be the goal.

Taking people out of the equation doesn’t guarantee safer food the way better regulation, food safety regimes and education do.

So, while one day we may see machines harvest fields of lettuce under the careful watch of their human masters, what makes our food safe will still be the same.

E-mail dwithers@thepacker.com

What's your take on using robots for harvest or food safety solutions? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.