Japan's farmers are facing a serious shortage of workers. According to a 2021 survey by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, the average age of farmers has risen to 67.9 years, with 60% of farmers aged 65 or older. On the other hand, the number of new farmers has remained almost flat over the past decade, and the agricultural workforce has declined by approximately 40% over the past decade.
Tamir Blum has developed a crop-transport robot to help farmers with labor shortages. It can carry up to 150 kilograms of apples, pears, and other produce and automatically transport them from the harvest area to the sorting area for up to eight hours. The robot's most distinctive feature is that it uses technology such as what Tamir researched for his PhD including computer vision and deep reinforcement learning, a form of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, to aid it to automatically drive in mountainous areas as well as indoors, where highly reliable GPS signals are difficult to reach, and on unpaved, uneven terrain with steep inclines. Inspired by the lunar rovers that travel in the harsh environment of the moon, Tamir has developed an AI algorithm that enables robots to determine the best route on their own and to travel automatically even in an environment with uneven surfaces and obstacles.
Much of this has to do with Tamir's unique background. An Israeli-American, Tamir studied aerospace engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, and after working as an engineer at SpaceX and AeroVironment, he received his PhD from Tohoku University in Japan. Tamir, who has specialized in space robotics research, says his transition to the ground was triggered by a trip to the Tohoku region, where he witnessed the aging of Japanese farmers. Two years ago, he founded a start-up company with the goal of "creating a future where farmers can expand their farms."
Currently, Tamir is conducting demonstration tests of the robot with the cooperation of dozens of farmers, with the aim of commercializing the robot next spring. In addition, the company hopes to use new robots to determine tree diseases through image recognition, to spray pesticides, and to mow grass. Tamir's challenge continues, not only to solve the pressing issue of labor shortages, but also to make agriculture an even more appealing industry especially for young people.