American growers produced more than 10 billion pounds of apples in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with most of those fruits picked from trees by hand. Buck Jordan, chief executive of Abundant Robots Inc., said the sheer volume of fruits that require picking each year make the apple-growing industry ripe for mechanization.
When you look at apples, first of all, it’s one of the most consumed fruits in the world,” said Jordan. “But a lot of that fruit is rotting on the vine because there’s frankly not enough labor out there to harvest it.”
Jordan is also the co-founder of Pasadena-based food tech company Miso Robotics Inc. and the founder of Wavemaker Labs, a Santa Monica-based startup incubator that has launched a spate of companies focused on automating agriculture and food production.
Last year, the incubator’s Singapore-based sister company, Wavemaker Labs Asia, acquired the intellectual property developed by the now-defunct Bay Area startup Abundant Robotics. The similarly named Abundant Robots is the inheritor of that technology, which Jordan said offers a highly sophisticated mechanism for completing the relatively difficult task of picking apples.
“Apples have particular challenges, which Abundant solves really nicely,” Jordan said. “Apples bruise easily, and if you bruise an apple ... you’re making sauce from that apple instead of selling it in Whole Foods.”
Jordan said Abundant’s automated picking system solves for this problem with a high-flow suction mechanism that allows for apples to be picked rapidly without sustaining damage. The system also accounts for potential challenges that come with picking multiple apples clustered together on a branch, said Jordan.
The challenge for the company now will be creating a more cost-effective version of the apple-picking technology originally developed by Abundant Robotics.
“What happens with a lot of robotics companies is they kind of overbuild their technology,” said Jordan. “But you have to be solving a problem at the right cost to make it a viable solution.”
Making the technology more affordable will require more development time and resources, and the company is launching a funding round through Wavemaker’s equity crowdfunding platform, WAX. Abundant Robots aims to raise $20 million, which Jordan said will go toward staffing and research and development.
The company plans to have pickers on the market by the third quarter of next year, with the devices being offered in what Jordan described as a “robotics as a service” model, allowing the machines to be deployed on a seasonal basis in parts of the world where apples are ready for harvesting.
Jordan said the devices lend themselves well to adaptation so that eventually they can be used in the harvesting of other tree fruits. He said the company is also investigating how the device might fit in with technology employed by other Wavemaker companies, like robotic harvester developer Future Acres Inc.
“Wavemaker has pretty advanced autonomy features,” Jordan said. “There will likely be some crossover and some pickup.”
Most of all, he added, the new company fits in with Wavemaker’s clear objective to advance automation technology in the agriculture and food industries.
“The nice thing about being part of Wavemaker is we really do a good job of making sure that when we’re building autonomous systems; the hardware stacks are as aligned as possible to afford bulk purchasing,” Jordan said. “And the software we build can be utilized across multiple applications.”
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