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Another human job bites the dust: Robot apple-picker suctions the fruit off trees

When is low-hanging fruit not low-hanging fruit in the robotics industry? According to Dan Steere, CEO and co-founder of California-based Abundant Robotics, when the task in question is coming up with a way to mechanize the apple-picking process.

“Production of many types of fruits and vegetables is harder to automate than other types of agriculture,” Steere told Digital Trends. “With apples, the main problems are that fruit is hard for computers to see, and it’s delicate. Until now it has not been possible to either reliably identify produce or automate harvesting without damaging the produce.”

After three years of R&D, however, he’s convinced his company has come up with the perfect solution. Enter the automated apple harvester.

Related: Robots expected to replace some five million jobs by 2020

Other than the above demo video, Steere isn’t spilling too many details about his team’s creation, but he’s convinced it’s a notable step forward. “Our robot uses computer vision to identify apples and a robotic arm with a unique end-effector to pick them rapidly without damaging the apples or the trees,” he said.

Essentially the robo-picker moves from tree to tree, plucking one piece of fruit per second. Rather than pulling the fruits off the trees, the robot essentially suctions them off like a giant vacuum cleaner. It can either work in a slow deliberate fashion or a fast-paced continuous mode. So far, the company has reportedly carried out field trials on orchards in Washington state and in Australia.

In doing so, of course, the robot harvester looks to join other robots like Knightscope’s K5 robot security guard or Momentum Machines’ robot hamburger maker as a technology capable of automating work that previously would have required a person to perform.

For now, however, orchard employees can breathe a sigh of relief that Abundant Robotics’ creation remains behind lab doors. Whether it can succeed in a competitive marketplace will ultimately rely on how well it can carry out the task and whether or not it will be an affordable replacement for human workers.

Dan Steere certainly sounds confident about his technology, though. “We expect to release a commercial harvester within the next two years,” he told us.