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Collaboration key, robotic apple picker inventor says

The California developer of a robotic apple picker says listening to potential customers and other inventors increases a new product’s chances of success.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on October 6, 2017 1:53PM

Prototype robotic apple picker and a fruiting wall. Cameras and sensors guide it to vacuum fruit into tubes to bins.

Courtesy of Abundant Robotics

Prototype robotic apple picker and a fruiting wall. Cameras and sensors guide it to vacuum fruit into tubes to bins.

Dan Steere, CEO and co-founder of Abundant Robotics, Hayward, Calif., is working on a robotic apple picker.

Dan Wheat/Capital Press

Dan Steere, CEO and co-founder of Abundant Robotics, Hayward, Calif., is working on a robotic apple picker.


WENATCHEE, Wash. — Learning to work collaboratively is key in successful entrepreneurial enterprises, says the developer of a robotic apple picker.

“The stereotypical engineer is more introverted than extroverted, so in the early days of thinking about what you are trying to make pair it with trying to become an extrovert,” Dan Steere, CEO and co-founder of Abundant Robotics, Hayward, Calif., said at “Science in Our Valley Seminar” at Wenatchee Valley College, Oct. 4.

Too often inventors fall in love with their idea but they increase chances of success if they talk to as many people as possible whom they think will benefit from their idea, listen to what they have to say and are willing to adapt, Steere said.

Raised in a family of farmers and educators in Louisiana and Texas, Steere was always interested in technical things and majored in computer science and economics in college. He obtained his masters in business administration and discovered that turning ideas into products is what he loved doing most. His first job was as a product manager for Intel Corporation, a technology company in Santa Clara, Calif., colloquially referred to as “Silicon Valley.”

Steere has been involved in company startups for 20 years and said the goal is to create a healthy business around a product people love. That’s where talking to people and listening comes in, he said.

“If you go and ask people about what they need, they are very bad about telling you. But they are good about telling you what they do every day and what their problems are,” he said. “If you talk to them enough and get an intuition about what they are telling you, you can fill in the lines for a solution.”

Inventors should collaborate with other inventors, he said.

“Very few people succeed just through their own brilliance. Einstein had a small group of collaborators. Edison was a master of collaborating. He invented the modern R&D (research and development) lab. It’s good to have people who can complement your own ideas,” he said.

Inventions can be like vitamins that make things better or they can be like cures that change things in a big way, Steere said.

“Don’t be afraid of a premium price if your product is really exciting or cures a big problem. Be very afraid of a pretty good vitamin. It has to be really, really good,” he said.

The first washing machine cured the problem of people washing their clothes by hand, he said.

The idea of taking and sending pictures from a smart phone was launched in Japan and inspired by teenage girls using mobile phones and instant cameras, he said.

The first iPod was 1,000 songs in your pocket and sold for $400, 20 times the songs and twice the price of a CD or MP3 player, he said.

The highest priced televisions were around $600 until flat-screen TVs came out and people were willing to pay $1,500 or more for them because “they were so cool,” he said.

For more than two years, Steere and Abundant Robotic co-founders Curt Salibury and Michael Eriksen have been working on a potential game changer for the apple industry — a robotic apple picker. If it is able to pick apples fast enough and gently enough to be economically viable, it could be a huge boost in labor savings and in meeting labor shortages.

The company has talked to growers and tested prototypes in Central Washington and the Southern Hemisphere. A robotic arm and vacuum tube, guided by computer aided by cameras and sensors, detects apples and sucks them off trees at one apple per second and delivers them into bins.

The effort is partially funded by a $500,000 grant from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee. Steere spoke about the project at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting last December and said his goal is to have a robotic apple picker ready for commercial use in orchards in the fall of 2018.

He has declined to answer questions or allow media at field tests this fall. He said he will be speaking at the tree fruit association annual meeting again this December.

A company in Israel also is working to develop a robotic apple harvester. Jim McFerson, director of the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, said it is the only other company “actively working” on the idea.



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