Duette, Fla — This has been a tough season for Florida strawberry growers, but help is on the way thanks to one Florida farmer and researchers at the University of Florida.
They have developed Thorvald, a strawberry picking robot that also kills mildew with its ultraviolet light.
It looks like an over-sized tanning bed on wheels and it moves through the strawberry beds two rows at a time picking the fruit with soft silicone rubber claws on its sixteen robotic picking wheels.
Farmer Gary Wishnatzki founded Harvest CROO to develop robots to help the labor-intensive industry through a project aptly named ‘Berry.”
Thorvald may be the answer to the recent decline in labor immigration for what Wishnatzki calls a difficult job.
“It does actually require some skill to pick strawberries, and the labor force that does it is aging,” Wishnatzki said. “Young people in Florida, in the U.S., don’t want to do this kind of work. There won’t be enough people to do the work in the coming years.”
The battery powered machine is getting a lot of attention and the group is working on two more versions that will be shipped to California in time for next years harvest.
“The robotic unit definitely catches a lot of attention. It’s cool and has interest from technologists, and robotics save on labor cost,” said Natalia Peres, a professor of plant pathology at the university who has been developing Thorvald.
More to the point, without robotic help Wishnatzki says the price of strawberries could rise dramatically in coming years.
Thorvald was funded in part by a $1 million dollar grand from the National Science Foundation in 2016 through the Small Business Innovation Research program.