Will Apple-Picking Robots Save Agriculture—Or Ruin Farm Workers?

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Abundant Robotics’ automated apple-picking technology.
Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs

As part of its effort to “disrupt” the food industry supply chain, Santa-Monica based automation incubator Wavemaker Labs has added—and revived—a new piece of technology that promises to change the game for apple orchards.

In October, Wavemaker acquired the intellectual property behind agtech startup Abundant Robotics’ autonomous apple-picking technology. Wavemaker is now relaunching the technology under the name Abundant Robots and taking aim at a major segment of the agriculture industry—one that generates around $5 billion annually for American apple farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Hayward, Calif.-based Abundant went under last year, citing difficulties “develop[ing] the market traction necessary to support its business during the pandemic.” Despite that failure, Wavemaker Labs founder and CEO Buck Jordan was convinced that the technology behind Abundant was solid, even if the startup’s execution ultimately failed.

“COVID essentially just killed their harvest season and killed the progress they needed to make in order to get the next round of financing,” Jordan told dot.LA. “[Abundant] kind of had to invent everything from scratch, and they’ve done a really great job. But there’s a lot of [technology] that’s cheaper off the shelf that can be used and swapped in.”

Abundant Robots\u2019 automated apple-picking machine grabs an apple.Abundant Robots’ automated apple-picking machine grabs an apple.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs

Jordan, who is fond of statistics, notes that around 87 million metric tons of apples are produced globally each year—making it “far and away, in terms of tree fruit, the biggest category that there is.” He adds that harvesting labor accounts for roughly two-thirds of the cost that consumers pay for an apple at the grocery store, with farming costs only projected to grow in the coming years.

This is where Wavemaker sees the opportunity for Abundant Robots. The IP it acquired essentially constitutes a vacuum-suction apple-harvesting system that operates in tandem with AI-backed image recognition software. In other words, the robot can eye an apple tree and suck the ripe apples right off the branch.

The delicate nature of the suction technology was a key selling point for Wavemaker. “[With] apples, you’ve got to be really ginger with them,” Jordan said. “If you bruise an apple, the value of that particular apple goes down—and now it’s applesauce instead of being sold in Whole Foods.”

Abundant Robots is now looking to raise $20 million via crowdfunding to improve on its existing prototype. If it hits its goals, the next iteration of the machine should cost under $100,000 to produce and be able to pick an apple every one-to-1.5 seconds. That’s likely quicker than even the fastest human pickers, according to Jordan—and of course, the machine never gets tired.

Abundant’s technology may be good news if you’re an apple grower, but probably not if you’re an apple picker. Aviva Chomsky, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts who studies immigration and migrant labor in the U.S., believes that automation will likely exacerbate power imbalances between agricultural workers and their employers.

An aerial view of Abundant Robots\u2019 apple-picking technology.An aerial view of Abundant Robots’ apple-picking technology.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs

“In an ideal socio-economic system, technologies could be used for the benefit of the many—but in our agricultural system, technologies are generally used for the benefit of the few and to the detriment of the many,” Chomsky told dot.LA.

While Wavemaker and others in the autonomous agriculture space are positioning their platforms as solutions to an ongoing labor shortage, labor advocates say their technologies could prove disastrous for America’s roughly 2.5 million farm workers and its rural farming communities.

“There is what I perceive to be a very insincere narrative—or perhaps more graciously, an incomplete narrative—about what’s really happening,” according to Erik Nicholson, a consultant and former national vice president of the United Farm Workers labor union. “That, to me, is about as sincere as saying Facebook is about connecting friends and family.”

Like Facebook, Nicholson thinks much of the actual value in technology like Abundant Robots’ machines will come from data collection. As tech companies are able to put more intelligent machinery on farms, they’ll be able to collect data on elements such as soil moisture, crop productivity and temperature.

About 87 million metric tons of apples are produced globally each year.About 87 million metric tons of apples are produced globally each year.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs

How tech companies choose to leverage that data remains to be seen. They could provide farmers with insights into how to grow more crops in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Nicholson, however, expects that the trend toward automation will come at a cost to farmers.

“Whoever writes the algorithms and has access to the data has tremendous power,” he said. “Do we want to just hand that over to the VCs in Silicon Valley and say they’re going to make the determinations about what’s growing, how and when?”

Critics agree that there’s no easy solution that simultaneously keeps food prices low, saves growers from going bankrupt and pays farmworkers a living wage. Yet as automotion promises to upend the agriculture industry’s status quo, they argue that farm workers at least deserve a seat at the table as billions in investment capital pour into the industry.

Otherwise, Nicholson said he fears that “we’re going to see an ongoing extraction of wealth into the hands of investors—who largely do not live in [farming communities like] Mabton, Wash. or Delano, Calif.”

🤠Musk Picks Texas and 🔥Tinder AI Picks Your Profile Pictures
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Tinder is altering dating profile creation with its new AI-powered Photo Selector feature, designed to help users choose their most appealing dating profile pictures. This innovative tool employs facial recognition technology to curate a set of up to 10 photos from the user's device, streamlining the often time-consuming process of profile setup. To use the feature, users simply take a selfie within the Tinder app and grant access to their camera roll. The AI then analyzes the photos based on factors like lighting and composition, drawing from Tinder's research on what makes an effective profile picture.

The selection process occurs entirely on the user's device, ensuring privacy and data security. Tinder doesn't collect or store any biometric data or photos beyond those chosen for the profile, and the facial recognition data is deleted once the user exits the feature. This new tool addresses a common pain point for users, as Tinder's research shows that young singles typically spend about 25 to 33 minutes selecting a profile picture. By automating this process, Tinder aims to reduce profile creation time and allow users to focus more on making meaningful connections.

In wholly unrelated news, Elon Musk has announced plans to relocate the headquarters of X (formerly Twitter) and SpaceX from California to Texas. SpaceX will move from Hawthorne to Starbase, while X will shift from San Francisco to Austin. Musk cited concerns about aggressive drug users near X's current headquarters and a new California law regarding gender identity notification in schools as reasons for the move. This decision follows Musk's previous relocation of Tesla's headquarters to Texas in 2021.

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Top LA Accelerators that Entrepreneurs Should Know About

Los Angeles, has a thriving startup ecosystem with numerous accelerators, incubators, and programs designed to support and nurture new businesses. These programs provide a range of services, including funding, mentorship, workspace, networking opportunities, and strategic guidance to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas and scale their companies.


Techstars Los Angeles

Techstars is a global outfit with a chapter in Los Angeles that opened in 2017. It prioritizes local companies but will fund some firms based outside of LA.

Location: Culver City

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: StokedPlastic, Zeno Power


Grid110

Grid110 offers no-cost, no-equity programs for entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, including a 12-week Residency accelerator for early-stage startups, an Idea to Launch Bootcamp for pre-launch entrepreneurs, and specialized programs like the PledgeLA Founders Fund and Friends & Family program, all aimed at providing essential skills, resources, and support to help founders develop and grow their businesses.

Location: DTLA

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Industry Agnostic

Notable Past Companies: Casetify, Flavors From Afar


Idealab

Idealab is a renowned startup studio and incubator based in Pasadena, California. Founded in 1996 by entrepreneur Bill Gross, Idealab has a long history of nurturing innovative technology companies, with over 150 startups launched and 45 successful IPOs and acquisitions, including notable successes like Coinbase and Tenor.

Location: Pasadena

Type of Funding: Stage agnostic

Focus: Industry Agnostic, AI/Robotics, Consumer, Clean Energy

Notable Past Companies: Lumin, Coinbase, Tenor


Plug In South LA

Plug In South LA is a tech accelerator program focused on supporting and empowering Black and Latinx entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles area. The 12-week intensive program provides early-stage founders with mentorship, workshops, strategic guidance, potential pilot partnerships, grant funding, and networking opportunities to help them scale their businesses and secure investment.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed

Focus: Industry Agnostic, Connection to South LA and related communities

Notable Past Companies: ChargerHelp, Peadbo


Cedars-Sinai Accelerator

The Cedars-Sinai Accelerator is a three-month program based in Los Angeles that provides healthcare startups with $100,000 in funding, mentorship from over 300 leading clinicians and executives, and access to Cedars-Sinai's clinical expertise and resources. The program aims to transform healthcare quality, efficiency, and care delivery by helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative technology products to market, offering participants dedicated office space, exposure to a broad network of healthcare entrepreneurs and investors, and the opportunity to pitch their companies at a Demo Day.

Location: West Hollywood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage, convertible note

Focus: Healthcare, Device, Life Sciences

Notable Past Companies: Regard, Hawthorne Effect


MedTech Innovator

MedTech Innovator is the world's largest accelerator for medical technology companies, based in Los Angeles, offering a four-month program that provides selected startups with unparalleled access to industry leaders, investors, and resources without taking equity. The accelerator culminates in showcase events and competitions where participating companies can win substantial non-dilutive funding, with the program having a strong track record of helping startups secure FDA approvals and significant follow-on funding.

Location: Westwood

Type of Funding: Seed, early stage

Focus: Health Care, Health Diagnostics, Medical Device

Notable Past Companies: Zeto, Genetesis


KidsX

The KidsX Accelerator in Los Angeles is a 10-week program that supports early-stage digital health companies focused on pediatric care, providing mentorship, resources, and access to a network of children's hospitals to help startups validate product-market fit and scale their solutions. The accelerator uses a reverse pitch model, where participating hospitals identify focus areas and work closely with selected startups to develop and pilot digital health solutions that address specific pediatric needs.

Location: East Hollywood

Type of Funding: Pre-seed, seed, early stage

Focus: Pediatric Health Care Innovation

Notable Past Companies: Smileyscope, Zocalo Health


Disney Accelerator

Disney Accelerator is a startup accelerator that provides early-stage companies in the consumer media, entertainment and technology sectors with mentorship, guidance, and investment from Disney executives. The program, now in its 10th year, aims to foster collaborations and partnerships between innovative technology companies and The Walt Disney Company to help them accelerate their growth and bring new experiences to Disney audiences.

Location: Burbank

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Technology and entertainment

Notable Past Companies: Epic Games, BRIT + CO, CAMP


Techstars Space Accelerator

Techstars Space Accelerator is a startup accelerator program focused on advancing the next generation of space technology companies. The three-month mentorship-driven program brings together founders from across the globe to work on big ideas in aerospace, including rapid launch services, precision-based imaging, operating systems for complex robotics, in-space servicing, and thermal protection.

Location: Los Angeles

Type of Funding: Growth stage

Focus: Aerospace

Notable Past Companies: Pixxel, Morpheus Space



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🚁 One Step Closer to Air Taxis in LA
Image Source: Joby Aviation

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Joby Aviation, a pioneering electric air taxi company, has achieved a significant milestone by successfully flying a hydrogen-electric aircraft demonstrator for 523 miles with only water as a byproduct. This groundbreaking flight showcases the potential for emissions-free regional travel using vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, eliminating the need for traditional runways. The company's innovative approach combines its existing battery-electric air taxi technology with hydrogen fuel cells, paving the way for longer-range, environmentally friendly air travel.

For LA residents, this development holds exciting implications for future transportation options. Joby's technology could potentially enable direct flights from LA to destinations like San Francisco or San Diego without the need to visit conventional airports, offering a cleaner and more convenient alternative to current travel methods. The company's progress in both battery-electric and hydrogen-electric aircraft positions it at the forefront of next-generation aviation, promising to revolutionize urban and regional mobility.

Notably, Joby Aviation has already made strides in Southern California by securing an agreement with John Wayne Airport earlier this year to install the region's first electric air taxi charger. This strategic move sets the stage for LA to be among the initial markets where Joby will launch its electric air taxi service. With plans to commence commercial operations as early as 2025 using its battery-electric air taxi, LA residents may soon have access to a fast, quiet, and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that could significantly reduce travel times and traffic congestion in the region. In the not too distant future, LA might find itself in an identity crisis without traffic and excess smog 🤞🤞.


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