Robotic orchard bins and the minimum wage

Last week Democrats in the House announced a bill that would increase the state minimum wage to $12 in 2019. Washington currently has the highest state minimum wage in the country, at $9.47.

Meanwhile, researchers at WSU have won a federal grant

to develop an intelligent bin management system supported by a robotic self-propelled fruit bin carrier in tree fruit orchards.

“This grant gives us the chance to convert what we thought would work into something that orchards can use,” said Dr. Qin Zhang, who will lead the research. “It’s one aspect to help address the overall labor shortage that orchards are dealing with.”

Zhang, director of the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems and professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, said the project objective is to develop a system that can place and collect bins in a fruit tree orchard to reduce labor needs and increase worker productivity.

Zhang, along with his colleague Dr. Matthew E. Taylor, assistant professor in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will develop algorithms for a self-propelled robotic bin carrier, test the system in a lab, and then validate it in a working orchard.

As James Pethokoukis noted in December, raising the minimum wage is not a win-win. Automation is one trade-off. If the robotic bin carriers work, they will be more cost effective and attractive for orchardists as the minimum wage increases.