Apr 12, 2021
Technology highlights at IFTA show commercial potential

The International Fruit Tree Association’s winter meeting – held in a series of online, virtual sessions and tours this year – contained updates on transformational technologies.

The event, held Feb. 22-24, had the theme of “Know your farm. Deliver the Best.” A session at the end of the event focused on transformational technologies. Two robotic apple pickers, an automated harvest-assist system and a spray microapplicator for apple blossoms and fruit were among those presented.

Fresh Fruit Robotics

Pat Pinkston, an advisor of Israel-based Fresh Fruit Robotics (FFR), opened his presentation with some background about why the industry is more than just curious about new technologies like FFR’s robotic apple picker.

“We know all too well the challenges the tree fruit industry is facing,” he said. “The last few years have accelerated, exponentially, the costs, obstacles and requirements for managing an orchard. Recent legislation on overtime and workman’s comp is making it almost impossible to produce tree fruit profitably. And the experiences in the last year with COVID have shown the risk of relying on an army of labor in the orchard.”

FFR’s machine was built to emulate the hand-harvesting process, he said, and runs through the steps of identifying fruit on the tree, deciding to pick a fruit, and delivering it to a bin.

“The fruit is accessed by a linear-motion arm and a gentle gripper to remove the fruit from the tree,” Pinkston said. “It’s then placed on a gentle conveyor handling system that moves the fruit to a stem clipping station and finally, the bin.”

The system was tested in Israel and Washington state in 2019 and demonstrated a capability to harvest at night. The machine has been updated since that time, and currently features 12 robotic arms, six on each side, that work simultaneously. The computer’s algorithm for operation is continually updated based on machine learning, as the machine rolls through orchards, Pinkston said. In a well-managed fruiting-wall orchard, it’s capable of harvesting more than 90% of the fruit, he said.

The company’s original business model will be service-based, offering custom harvesting – charging for fruit harvesting by the bin and data by the tree. CEO Avi Kahani, who spent considerable time in years past on a ladder harvesting fruit, is pleased with the results.

“His lifelong dream to automate fruit harvesting is now a reality,” Pinkston said.

Automated Ag

Leaders of tech companies participated in an informal Q&A session together after giving updates on their products. From the top are Dan Steere, CEO and a founder of Abundant Robotics, Fresh Fruit Robotics CEO Avi Kahani, Washington State University Extension Regional Tree Fruit Specialist Karen Lewis, who emcee’d the event, and Verdant Robotics founders Gabe Sibley, left, and Curtis Garner.

J.J. Dagorret, owner of Automated Ag in Moses Lake, Washington, reported on a number of the company’s self-propelled Bandit platforms that can be fitted to FFR’s machine or The Cyclone from Conklin, Michigan’s DBR Conveyor Concepts.

“This is our third year with it,” Dagorret said of The Cyclone. “We’ve made some modifications to the original DBR setup. Now, we have our bin-filler. We partnered with a company out of France.”

The machine doesn’t pick fruit, but automates the delivery of the fruit, taking each apple from the picker and carefully putting it in a bin.

“We have a suction fan that creates a vacuum – that pulls the apples through the hose about 15 feet a second, and we have a de-accelerator that slows that down … to set it down on a distributor that sets it in the bin,” he said.

The automation saves about four minutes per bin, Dagorret said. The Cyclone is noisy (still within legal limits, he said), but on the other hand, pickers don’t have to shoulder bags of apples.

“We’ve had all the kinks worked out of it,” he said. “They’ll go on sale in November.”

Verdant Robotics

Verdant Robotics Founder and CEO Gabe Sibley spoke about the development of its technology to track and manage the health of individual fruits in the orchard. The technology would work by creating digital records about the physical space in the orchard.

“We try to digitize farming in a similar way that Google digitizes the web,” he said. “By babysitting every apple, tracking it from bud through to harvest, it allows us to close a control loop around every apple in a way you couldn’t do if you had all the world’s agronomists hanging around looking at it.”

The company follows a process of “Index, Act, Discover,” by gathering data and addressing issues that come up, Sibley said.

For instance, the machine indexes king blossoms. It “acts” by moving down the orchard rows, spraying doses of nutrients and fungicides at the individual blossoms and fruit. The company has discovered from working with growers a possibility to adjust the packout and service a larger-sized tree, Sibley said.

Abundant Robotics

Dan Steere, one of the founders and CEO of Abundant Robotics, spoke about the company’s robotic apple harvester, which has been at work in both hemispheres with New Zealand and Washington state in 2019, and attempted the same in 2020.

“We started in February and just as we got started with Southern Hemisphere harvest, COVID happened and we got shut down early,” Steere said. “But we were able to go for the beginning of the Washington harvest and so we started picking in mid-August.” The prototypes worked for “a cross-section of growers” in Washington until the season ended in November.

Abundant Robotics’ machine drives itself, recognizes fruit, determines ripeness and picks the ripe fruit, delivering it to a bin. Orchard managers can adjust the ripeness the machines pick for, Steere said.

“We’re taking pre-production prototypes into orchards, and we’re being paid to pick them as a service,” Steere said. “Because we’re being paid, we expect to operate to commercial standards.”

He added that it’s important for the company to do its work in realistic commercial settings – in day and night, with smoke in the air, a variety of lighting conditions and even orchard types including tall spindle, formally trained vertical and V-trellis. In 2020, the machine prototypes picked more than 50,000 apples each for the varieties of Gala, Fuji, Ambrosia and Maslan Pink Lady as well as Pink Lady.

“It was very gratifying to see that while there are variations between varieties that you’re used to seeing, that general assessment of commercial readiness was consistent across the varieties we’ve seen.”

In total, Abundant robots have picked more than 1 million apples, Steere said it’s a small number for the apple-growing industry as a whole, but a milestone for the company.

“A million is enough for us to gather the data we need to become confident that we’re ready to move forward,” he said.

In what Steere called an industry first, Abundant Robotics harvesters picked entire packouts of apples. Some customers – not all – were able to run control groups of hand-picked bins and compare the packouts. Machine-picked packouts ranged from +2.4 % to -4.99 % compared to hand-picked, Steere said, and the average machine-picked packout was 2.07% lower than hand-picked.

“The best way to grade the quality of work we’re doing, harvesting fruit that’s submitted to the warehouse, is a packout report,” he said. “Most of this audience knows (that for) the modern packout report, you can’t just run a few bins through the line and get a grade. The minimum size that packinghouses are looking for is 20-40 bins, and some are hundreds. The problem is, no robotic platform has ever picked close to that amount. And this was the first year we were able to do that consistently, so it was exciting.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor


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