Could robots someday replace farm workers?  It's possible.  A Washington State University researcher has received a grant allowing him to develop an apple picking robot.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave $548.000 earlier this month to assistant professor with WSU's Center for Precision and Automated Agriculture Systems Monoj Karkee.

Karkee envisions a prototype within three to five years and commercially available models within 10. His idea is of a robot reaching its dozen tentacles through the leaves of an apple tree to pick ripe fruit at four times the rate of humans.

His idea is to pair an automated machine with a field employee who would decide how and when to pick apples, when for example, they are obscured behind leaves or in clusters.

He and his team at the university’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center have been using computers and video to design a machine with arms and grabbers that would mimic the picking motion of a human hand to treat fruit as gently as possible.

The concept differs from WSU-Prosser’s automated cherry harvester prototype, which shakes tree limbs and catches the fruit below.

Apples are too heavy for that, Karkee said.

Funding for the grant came from the National Robotics Initiative, a joint program of the National Science Foundation, U.S. National Institute for Food and Agriculture, National Institutes of Health and NASA.