Apple Picking Robot Gets to Work in New Zealand

The average American eats about 45 pounds of apples per year with 7,500 varieties grown throughout the world. They are also one of the harder fruits to pick as the apple and tree can easily be damaged if not handled with care.

While automation is starting to make it’s way onto farms and orchards, most apples are still picked by hand. One company is looking to change that by way of machine vision and an apple picking robot.

Apple Picking Robot Abundant Robotics - YellRobot
credit: Abundant Robotics

World’s First Commercial Robotic Apple Harvest

Meet Abundant Robotics. The Hayward, California based company has created the world’s first commercial robotic apple harvest. They’ve partnered with produce supplier T&G Global to use the robot in an apple orchard in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.

The apple picking robot doesn’t have a name yet but it uses some impressive tech to get the job done. It moves through the rows of apple trees with lidar technology which uses lasers to navigate and map an area. Using machine vision the robot scans the trees and identifies each apple in real time.

A vacuum like arm then sucks the apple from the tree sending the fruit to a conveyor belt and into a bin on the robot. Abundant’s robot can run 24 hours a day and pick at an impressive rate of 1 apple per second.

Credit: Abundant Robotics

Machine Vision Can Determine Apple’s Ripeness

The robot can also determine if the apple is ripe or not. Judging by color, if the fruit isn’t quite ready to be picked, the bot will bypass and grab it at a later time. The robot’s vision system can be customized to judge ripeness depending on the type of apple and a farmer’s preference.

“Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself,” Abundant CEO Dan Steere said in a press release.

Apple Picking Robot Abundant Robotics - YellRobot
credit: Abundant Robotics

Affect on Human Workers?

So how will this affect farm workers? More than half the cost of a piece of fruit is in labor, and workers are becoming harder to find. In a poll conducted by Fruit Grower News, 40 percent of respondents (Fruit Growers) still experienced severe worker shortages in 2017.

T&G says the robots are there to help human workers, not replace them. Picking apples is quite labor intensive as human workers have to constantly go up and down ladders as they move through the orchard. Using a robot like Abundant’s can take out a lot of heavy work.

“It’s never intended to fully replace labor, at least not at its current level of technology. But this is the future, and it is an important part of our orchard management and will be increasingly so as we get more units here.” said Peter Landon-Lane, T&G’s chief operating officer. 

Abundant hopes to see their apple picking robot in more orchards around the world. The company plans to deploy them in Washington state this fall.

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