When it comes to farm robots, fruit gets all the attention. But it looks like trees and shrubs could win the prize for first significant agricultural market for small mobile robots.
Massachusetts startup Harvest Automation is beta testing a small mobile robot that it’s pitching to nurseries as the solution to their most pressing problem: a volatile labor market.
The multi-billion-dollar industry that supplies ornamental plants to building contractors, big-box retailers and landscaping firms — $11.7 billion according to the most recent USDA figures — has been eagerly awaiting automation for decades. The down economy and harsh state laws targeting undocumented workers have turned up the pressure.
The horticulture industry has caught the attention of several robotics industry veterans, including Joe Jones, a co-inventor of iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. What they see is an opportunity to develop a small, relatively inexpensive, mobile material handling robot. Their venture-backed company has been field testing the robots at 11 nurseries around the country, and plans to release its first product at the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter next year.