May 15, 2019Diving into the ‘first commercial robotic apple harvest’
Robots are in an orchard. This is not a drill.
Machines took in the harvest at T&G Global orchards in Hawkes Bay, a large apple production area in New Zealand where the picking season runs February to early May.
T&G Global, a vertically-integrated company that grows apples, packs them, ships them and markets them, claimed the “world’s first commercial robotic apple harvest” in March. Other robotic and automated harvest-assist systems are in various stages of development and testing, but this would be the first robot on the job.
T&G contracted with Abundant Robotics to perform the harvest as a service. At press time, Abundant’s robot was on track to finish the harvest in New Zealand, said Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere.
“The robot started in February and is still harvesting,” Steere wrote to Fruit Growers News in an early April email from New Zealand. Hayward, California-based Abundant Robotics is backed by a variety of venture capital and agricultural industry investors, including T&G’s parent company, BayWa AG. Abundant Robotics’ parent company is SRI International.
Planning, growing and training orchards wide and regular enough for platform harvesters and robots is a feature of most modern orchards, and T&G wrote in a news release that high-density plantings and certain pruning techniques helped prepare its orchards for robotic work.
“The robot has mostly been used in vertical canopies with a row width of three meters,” Steere said. “The best row arrangements are either vertical systems with a 10-foot-row width, or V-trellis with a 12-foot-row width and a shallow angle.”
Abundant’s robot has been little seen apart from a 2016 video showing a prototype using a vacuum mechanism to suck apples off trees – Steere has described it as “a combine for orchards.
“What we’ve built are self-contained, self-propelled systems that drive down orchard rows, recognize fruit, and as they recognize fruit, they decide if it’s ripe,” he told Fruit Growers News in an earlier interview. “And then if it’s ripe, robotics is used to pick the fruit, and robotics uses vacuums to pick the fruit off the tree. Then we carry that fruit to the orchard bins, and fill the bins.”
T&G released a couple of still photos showing the robot at work, and said it was picking several different cultivars including T&G’s proprietary branded apples, Jazz and Envy, which it said were “destined for supermarket shelves in New Zealand and overseas.”
The Abundant robot is capable of navigating several different orchard formats.
“The main issue is to approach pruning and thinning to make the fruit accessible to the robot,” he said. “We’ve seen good results when pruning and thinning both spindle and formally trained systems.”
Steere said the robot is designed to harvest 30-40 bins per day. As it started its first commercial harvest, it was running at the rate of 10-20 bins per day in mature orchard canopy, and they planned to methodically run it at higher rates going forward.
He said the robot will operate autonomously in the future.
“Because this is the first season we’ve operated commercially, we have two people with the system at all times,” Steere said. “In upcoming harvests, the system will operate autonomously.”
The robotic and automated equipment being developed for apple growers are often seen as a solution to a worsening supply of agricultural labor in the U.S. and abroad.
“Apple-picking is tough physical work and it’s seasonal,” T&G Global Chief Operating Officer Peter Landon-Lane said in a released statement.
“Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity.
“This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labor.”