Robots replacing fruit pickers? Not quite, but a new machine is changing the industry

PASCO, Wash. -- Apple harvest should begin next week and KEPR has continued to cover major concerns about a shortage of pickers for our crops here in Eastern Washington. Now, a new fruit-picking machine is being tested in our area and it could be the solution.

It's sunrise at Hayden Farms in Pasco. Chatter of birds nearby. But on Wednesday morning, wheels, tubes and exhaust cram the orchard.

It's called the DBR. It stands for Dietrich, Brown and Rasch, the last names of the engineers of the machine. It's robo-farmer of sorts. A newly-engineered machine to assist fruit pickers.

Grower Denny Hayden is testing the DBR out.

"We're not picking every fruit. The fruit with the proper maturity, proper background, and fruit color," said Hayden.

Denny, like many farmers in our area, has struggled to keep enough workers through the harvest season.

"We've been right on the edge all year long and it's been like that for a couple years, and we don't anticipate it going better."

Recent reports found there could be 40% fewer agriculture workers this year over last. A machine like this could make all the difference. The DBR could cut labor costs in half for farmers, saving thousands of dollars.

"With apples, 30-50% of our costs are labor costs, and cherries, it's even higher," Denny explained.

Labor costs can get passed on to the consumer. Instead of a human, the machine takes the apples, sucks them back through a tube and carefully places each one in a bucket. The platforms move up and down, forward and back to reach for fruit. The DBR carries five pickers as it moves down the row, and it doesn't even need a driver.

"We're not out there climbing ladders, carrying ladders, not carrying around a big bucket of fruit," said Denny. "We're just making the human more efficient."

That efficiency could open the door for more people who could never do this kind of work before. Denny hopes in a few years, a machine like the DBR could help cut a third of his payroll.

"We're trying to figure it all out still. This is the beginning stages," He says.

The DBR is changing the face of one of the oldest industries we know. There are only two DBR's in the nation right now. One is being tried out throughout Washington orchards and the other in Michigan.