PROSSER, Wash. — While pickers are busy harvesting apples by hand throughout Central Washington, efforts continue to replace those hands with robots.
A robot able to pick apples fast enough and gently enough to be economically viable could be a huge boost to the apple industry in labor savings and in meeting labor shortages.
Manoj Karkee, associate professor of biological systems engineering at the Washington State University research station in Prosser, and a new company, Abundant Robotics, of Menlo Park, Calif., tested robotic picking in Central Washington orchards last year and again this fall.
About a dozen companies around the world and another three to five research groups are working on the robotic harvest of apples, citrus, bell peppers, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables predominantly picked by hand, Karkee said.
“There are a lot of aspects. We have made good progress. I would think in three to five years something will be commercially available and in another five to 10 years more common place,” he said.
Karkee is project lead and a member of the WSU Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at Prosser. The project is funded with a $548,000 USDA National Robotics Initiative grant awarded in 2013. The study is scheduled to conclude in a year but will continue with other funding, he said.
A mechanical hand grasps and picks fruit aided by cameras and sensors to identify fruit color, shape and texture.
“Last year, 10 to 15 percent of fruit was left in the tree. This year, we’re trying to improve that,” Karkee said.
Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics, declined comment. The company was announced as a spinoff of SRI International, of Menlo Park, in an SRI news release on Aug. 10. SRI used its own money and received a $550,000 grant from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee and is testing a vacuum system that sucks apples off trees. While theoretically more gentle, early problems have included sucking leaves, bits of limb and pulling stems that can damage fruit.
The company’s vision and vacuum systems have been able to pick more than one apple per second, Steere has told other media.
Karkee said he brought SRI officials to Washington to collaborate and SRI and the WSU team pursued different projects, SRI the vacuum system and WSU the mechanical hand.
The WSU team is agricultural engineers with a crop science and engineering perspective and Abundant Robotics has been involved in robotics for applications other than agriculture, he said.
“Our goal is more to understand basic knowledge and unknowns of how human pickers pick apples and how we use that in robotics. How we can use both together,” Karkee said. “Our product focuses on that conception rather than the big production and commercialization like Abundant Robotics.”