Walking robots that deliver parcels to your door, or store staff who bring groceries to your home and put them away in the fridge and pantry could be a reality in the not-too-distant future.
Cathy Burns, CEO of the USA-based Produce Marketing Association, one of the keynote speakers at the February Zespri Momentum Conference at Mount Maunganui, says both versions of home delivery were being trialled now in America.
In a Walmart trial for an online ordering service “a Walmart associate will go into your house and put groceries away for you. They are wearing cameras so the customer can watch them go into the home,” says Cathy.
Another trial involves a robotic self-drive van. In the back is a robot that can walk up to a client’s door, using AI to navigate around obstacles in its way – such as a child’s toy on the footpath – and deposit a box of goods on the doorstep.
Internationally and in New Zealand, online shopping is growing fast. The global online grocery market is predicted to grow from $150 billion in 2017 to $334 billion in 2022 and there has been a 59 per cent dollar growth in New Zealand supermarket e-commerce.
However, technology, robots and AI are not just being used in retail. They are also helping make food production more efficient and sustainable, says Cathy.
Regenerative agriculture, which uses farming principles designed to mimic nature to build healthy soils and fertile, thriving ecosystems, is receiving a lot of attention and financial investment in the US.
“One project in Florida, inserting beneficial fungi or bacteria into the soil has been able to produce citrus which is bigger and sweeter. By treating an acre of land this way, it is also possible to offset the carbon emissions of one passenger car for a whole year.
“A robot used in Californian lettuce and cauliflower crops uses AI vision as it goes up the rows detecting weeds and a probe to weed out the crop, saving labour and also reducing the reliance on herbicides.”
Robots and AI were also being used to monitor plant health, again reducing labour costs. Concerns over the declining population of bees had led to the development of a drone that can hover over a flower and pollinate it and a new robot has been developed to carry out 3D mapping of blackberry bushes and to pollinate them too.
Another device to assist the human workforce was an electric wheelbarrow. “These are assigned to individual pickers, following them up and down the row. Once a crate [of produce] is ready it is placed on the wheelbarrow which takes it away for packing, almost like a conveyor system.”
Cathy says the fruit and vegetable industries are uniquely placed to help turn around the increasingly dire health standards of much of the world’s population, especially in Western nations.
“Six in 10 adults in the US have chronic disease and four in 10 adults have two or more chronic diseases. Based on the current trajectory, adults will live four years less. If we don’t change that trajectory young people around the world will be the first generation not to live as long as their parents and we cannot stand for that.
“We have part of the answer, which is to eat more fruit and vegetables.” Cathy predicts doctors will be prescribing fruit and vegetables, including kiwifruit, to improve the health of their patients and reduce healthcare costs.