These Robots Follow You To Know Where To Go
Fruit and nut growers are increasingly engaging with computer vision in their work. Tasty, for example, uses AI to find combinations of grapes that can mask smoke flavor of vineyards polluted by fire, and a cross-disciplinary team of biologists and AI researchers working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking for ways to protect vineyards from fungus that can damage a crop.
Walt Duflock helped run a 10,000-acre farm in Monterey County in California for cattle, table grapes, and other crops. He is also the VP of innovation for the Western Growers Association, a consortium of farmers that represents half of the fruit, vegetable, and nut growing operations in the U.S..
Duflock first met Burro’s founders while working as a mentor at Thrive agriculture startup accelerator. He believes automation is needed to address the shortages of agricultural workers, especially for the harvest. Over time, he thinks robots like Burro can eliminate up to 20 percent of farm work.
That’s even more important as the pool of potential farm workers dwindles. Rural populations are declining, and farm workers are aging, according to the Census. American Community Survey data showed that the average farm worker was 39.5 in 2019, up from 35 in 2006, and the average foreign farm worker was nearly 42, because fewer young immigrants were looking for work in agriculture. the US Department of Labor says about two out of three workers who grow fruit, vegetables, or nuts grown in the U.S. were born in another country.
The labor issue is particularly acute in fruit and nut trees, where the Department of Agriculture estimates that workers consume 30 percent of gross income — three times the 10 percent average for all farms.
“Burro gave them a chance to relocate what [resources] they are there because now there is a huge gap between the labor we need and the labor we have for the industry, ”Duflock said.
Piaggio, the maker of the Vespa scooter, also sees a future in robots that can follow humans. A few weeks before the Amazon debut of the Astro, Piaggio Fast Forward introduced the GitaMini, a robot that can carry 20 pounds and follow you for 20 miles outside. Gita means a short trip to Italian, and the little robot is already in development since 2015. Piaggio announced GitaMini will be able to carry a week’s worth of groceries for someone living in an apartment or condo.
Beyond consumer applications, Piaggio explores potential business use cases for robots that follow. At Swiss food delivery company Smood, partners who fulfill orders for customers use Gita robots to walk through store aisles and then make deliveries along the curve. Gita’s robots are also used to shop at convenience stores and gift shops and make deliveries to passengers waiting to board flights at about a dozen airports for At Your Gate.
Piaggio Fast Forward CEO Greg Lynn hopes the Mini will open up more interior equipment for businesses that want to support curbside pickup and automate operations but don’t want to feel like a warehouse. “The whole world has become a warehouse in a ridiculous way,” he said. “It’s like everyone is looking at brick and mortar and saying, ‘How can I make digital fulfillment?'”
Outside, Lynn wants robot followers with heavy wheels to operate in farms and other semi-structured industrial environments. At a construction site in Colorado, the company tested earlier this year Gita robots that work as a team and follow behind a human or other robots. In theory, dozens or hundreds of rovers could follow each other in platoon practice similar to fleets of autonomous trucks operating as a train or convoy. Platoons of Gita robots deliver groceries and other items to residents of New Haven, a planned community in Ontario, California. But the platoon raises questions about how many robot assistants are too many before they can be intimidating or a poor reflection of the dynamics of work power.