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These Robots Follow You to Learn Where to Go

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Fruit and nut growers are increasingly incorporating computer vision into their work. Tastry, for example, uses AI to look for combinations of grapes that can mask smoky flavors at vineyards tainted by wildfires, and a cross-disciplinary team of biologists and AI researchers working with the US Department of Agriculture is seeking ways to protect vineyards from fungus that can spoil a crop.

Walt Duflock helps run a 10,000-acre farm in California’s Monterey County for cattle, table grapes, and other crops. He’s also 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 US.

Duflock first met Burro’s founders while working as a mentor for the Thrive agriculture startup accelerator. He thinks automation is necessary to address labor shortages in agriculture, particularly for harvesting. Over time, he thinks robots like Burro can eliminate up to 20 percent of labor on farms.

That’s particularly important as the pool of potential farm workers shrinks. Rural populations are declining, and farm workers are aging, according to the Census. American Community Survey data shows the average farm worker was 39.5 in 2019, up from 35 in 2006, and the average foreign farm worker was nearly 42, since fewer young immigrants are seeking jobs in agriculture. The US Department of Labor says about two out of three workers planting fruits, vegetables, or nuts grown in the US were born in another country.

The worker issue is particularly acute on fruit and tree nut farms,  where the Agriculture Department estimates labor consumes 30 percent of gross income—three times the 10 percent average for all farms.

“Burro gives them a chance to reallocate what [resources] they do have because right now there’s a big gap between the labor we need and the labor we have for the ag industry,” Duflock says.

Piaggio, the maker of Vespa scooters, also sees a future in robots that can follow people. A few weeks before Amazon debuted Astro, Piaggio Fast Forward introduced GitaMini, a robot that can carry up to 20 pounds and follow you for 20 miles outdoors. Gita means short trip in Italian, and the little robot has been in development since 2015. Piaggio is advertising the GitaMini as capable of carrying a week’s worth of groceries for one person living in an apartment or condo.

Beyond consumer applications, Piaggio has explored potential business use cases for follower robots. At the food delivery company Smood in Switzerland, associates fulfilling orders for customers use Gita robots to walk store aisles and then make curbside deliveries. Gita robots are also used to shop at convenience stores and gift shops and make deliveries to passengers waiting to board flights in about a dozen airports for At Your Gate.

Piaggio Fast Forward CEO Greg Lynn hopes the Mini opens more indoor uses for businesses that want to support curbside pickup and automate operations but don’t want to feel like a warehouse. “The whole world’s turning into a warehouse in a funny way,” he says. “It’s like everybody looks at brick and mortar and says, ‘How do I do digital fulfillment?’”

Outdoors, Lynn wants follower robots with heavy-duty tires to operate on farms and other semi-structured industrial environments. On a construction site in Colorado, the company earlier this year tested Gita robots that work as a team and follow behind a human or other robots. Theoretically, dozens or hundreds of rovers can follow each other in a platooning practice akin to fleets of autonomous trucks moving as a single train or convoy. Platoons of Gita robots deliver groceries and other items to the residents of New Haven, a planned community in Ontario, California. But platooning can raise questions about how many robot helpers is too many before they become intimidating or an unhealthy reflection of work power dynamics.

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