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The New Face of Florida Farm Workers – Robots

Migrant workers have long been the greatest asset to Florida growers.  Without their hard work and dedication, growers would be unable to feed our nation.  However, as immigration laws become more strict, the migrant worker pool has dwindled, not just in Florida, but throughout the U.S.  This brings a challenge to many growers and to researchers that work for the agricultural industry.  Gulf Coast Research takes that challenge, and we will run with it!

Researchers at our center are switching gears and taking the lead in developing new methods to help growers save money, labor costs, and bring their farms into this new world of precision agriculture.  Precision agriculture is part of what is known as the modern agriculture revolution. This idea started with the invention and implementation of tractors, and continued in the 60’s with new methods of genetic modification.  Now GCREC is contributing with new technological advancements known as precision farming.   We are currently working on several different applications including UV application to replace pesticides and fungicides, smart spraying, and developing plants that can adapt to mechanical harvesting.

Meet Thorvald.  This amazing little robot was developed in collaboration with Saga Robotics in Norway.  Thorvald can use both GPS coordinates or be guided manually with a remote control.  UV applications are emitted during the night when pests have little resistance to the lighting. Most pests have adapted to the daylight hours of UV light, so when subjected to these rays at night, they are ill prepared to run and hide.  First tested on fungal diseases of strawberry such as powdery mildew, the fact that it also killed off mites on these plants was a happy surprise.  It only takes a few seconds of UV light to help control these two issues.  The result being growers can use less pesticides and fungicides, saving money and labor costs.  The future use for robots like Thorvald will be growers renting the technology by the hour for their fields.

Another interesting project is our Smart Sprayer developed to save time and money for growers by spot spraying weeds.  The normal practice is to spray the entire bed for weeds such as Carolina geranium, a very common problem in strawberry fields.  However, imagine there are just a few of these pesty weeds hidden under the strawberry canopy.  Spraying dozens or a hundred beds of produce can be costly.  Here is where our smart sprayer comes in to change this practice.  Using software already available, a computer is attached to an existing tractor used for spraying. The computer program is uploaded with 1000s of images of weeds and using artificial intelligence, can identify the weed vs the foliage of the produce.  When attached to the sprayer, the computer program can direct the sprayer to spray an herbicide once a weed is recognized.  Spot spraying just those few weeds can save an incredible amount of money over a season.  In addition, it benefits the environment with less run off by these products into the ground water.

On the breeding side of this emerging technology, our tomato breeders are working on a low compact tomato plant that doesn’t require staking.  This will allow a mechanical harvest to come through the fields, lift the plant off the ground and shake the fruit onto a conveyor belt.  This type of harvester would be used for processed tomatoes which are for soups, canned sauces, etc.  Because tomatoes are delicate, hand-picking is still the best way to harvest those that are available in the fresh marketplace.

As the world population grows and the desire for clean eating becomes more of a movement, our center will be working diligently to develop more technology to assist growers.  When growers  become more efficient and save money on product and labor, we will all gain by having more fresh produce available to our growing world.