Robot in a field holding a head of lettuce

The Salad Robots

| Wednesday, January 8, 2014 |

By Earl H. Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

First came the self-checkout lanes at grocery stores, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and various other establishments, basically eliminating thousands of jobs throughout the country.

Now we have the Lettuce Bot, coming to a farm near you in the not-too-distant future.

It's an agricultural robot designed to harvest fruits and vegetables destined for the fresh market. These crops have traditionally been hand-picked because machines would always bruise the produce, but within the next few years many farmers will probably be switching over to machines.

In theory, this mean no illegal aliens complaining about being underpaid and over-worked, and maybe farmers won't be constantly threatened by labor unions and farmworker advocates. Hand-picking produce is certainly a thankless job that very few people actually want to do, but when workers start organizing and making demands, industry will spend money to eliminate problems, and many farms are owned by one of several major food corporations.

Groups were organizing and picketing Publix and other grocery stores recently, threatening to cease patronizing their establishments if they didn't raise prices and give the difference to farm laborers. If machines have the ability to pick almost all the crops, then the illegal aliens can return to their homelands and those who threaten legitimate businesses can move on to other causes.

The wheeled metal contraption is pulled by a tractor, thinning a field of lettuce in about the same amount of time it takes 20 workers. Silicon Valley engineers are perfecting the machines right now outside Salinas, California, which is known as America's Salad Bowl. They are using advanced sensors, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, along with networking and GPS technology, which would allow farmers to deliver products to stores in a more reliable fashion.

Labor shortages and immigration reform would be problems of the past, and the United States might stop losing sales to overseas markets…in theory, at least.

Something to consider in the near-future when you make a lettuce and tomato sandwich, or slice up some lettuce for a big Caesar’s salad: did that farm robot just make your life better, or worse?