For the last five years, I have dedicated a significant amount of time to Harvest CROO Robotics. In the summer of 2017, we were invited to the Forbes Ag Tech Summit in Salinas, CA to be recognized for our efforts to bring an autonomous strawberry harvester to market. Along with co-founder Bob Pitzer and Head Electrical Engineer Scott Jantz, we set up a booth display with a looping video of the technology in action.
An estimated 2,000 growers, academics and technology experts throughout California attended the event. In addition to the exhibits, there were speakers and panel sessions that went on throughout the day. Along with numerous produce industry leaders, guest speakers included Janet Napolitano and namesake Steve Forbes. The session on farm automation particularly interested me, so I made a point to sit in on it. The panel included Brian Antle of Tanimura & Antle, Dan Steere of Abundant Robotics and independent strawberry grower Javier Zamora. The discussion centered around robotic solutions for the farm. Brian Antle and Dan Steere spoke of the technologies they are using for planting lettuce and picking apples, respectively. When Javier was asked about automation in strawberries, he made a point to say how hard it would be for a machine to pick strawberries. He described the delicate nature of the fruit and the difficulty with identifying ripe berries. He ultimately said it was nearly impossible and he would not see an automated solution for strawberries in his lifetime.
At this point, I’m getting agitated. We’ve spent countless hours trying to bring a solution to market, so this subject has been very near and dear to my heart. Now, here I am listening to a person who was totally oblivious of our developments, and he was speaking as if he was some expert in the robotics industry! I was more than a little miffed. As I sat there, teeth gritting, I remember thinking “not in his lifetime, huh?”
When the panel discussion was over, I spontaneously sprung to my feet and made a beeline toward Javier. As he came down the steps, I greeted him and extended my hand: “Hello Javier, my name is Gary Wishnatzki. It’s very nice to meet you.” I got up close and put my hand on his shoulder. I stated in a somber tone: “I am very sorry to be the one to inform you, but (I took a dramatic pause) …you only have a year to live.”
At first, Javier was taken aback by my brash statement. Eventually, he began to chuckle once I explained the context. I urged him to come by our booth and see the video of our technology. After he did, I’d like to think that his perspective shifted on the prospect of a robotic berry picker happening in his lifetime.
We are headed for great things, as long as we live long enough to accomplish them.