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Israeli company works on robotic apple picker

Companies in Israel and California are the only two in the world actively working on developing robotic apple pickers as a solution to a shortage of human pickers.
Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Published on October 17, 2017 9:24AM

FFMH-Tech picker uses a three-pronged hand on end of robotic arm to pick apples into a basket that feeds onto a conveyor.

FFRobotics

FFMH-Tech picker uses a three-pronged hand on end of robotic arm to pick apples into a basket that feeds onto a conveyor.


An Israeli entrepreneur says he will have a robotic apple picker ready to market at the end of 2018 or the beginning of 2019.

Avi Kahani, CEO and co-founder of FFMH-Tech Ltd. in Emeq-Heffer, Israel, says he was managing an apple orchard in the late 1980s and was “haunted” by the idea of a mechanical solution to picking apples. But he didn’t have the resources to follow through until 2014 when he formed his company to develop a robotic fresh fruit harvester, first concentrating on apples. FFMH is the initials for Fresh Fruit Mechanical Harvester.

A robotic apple picker could be a significant solution to the shortening supply of human pickers in Washington, the U.S. and fruit producing areas.

FFMH-Tech — also known as FFRobotics — and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, Calif., are the only two companies in the world actively working to commercialize a robotic apple picker, said Jim McFerson, director of the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, Wash.

The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, also in Wenatchee, has granted $500,000 toward development of Abundant Robotics’ picker. FFRobotics also has a proposal before the commission for funding, said Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension tree fruit specialist. Abundant Robotics has said its goal is to have a robotic apple picker ready for commercial use in orchards in the fall of 2018.

Kahani, who is a mechanical engineer with experience in infrastructure software, told Capital Press that he didn’t know anything about Abundant Robotics when he started his project. He said he successfully field tested his prototype in Israel in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“The potential markets are more or less worldwide with the U.S., Canada, Italy, France, Poland and other countries as main entry points,” he said.

Like Abundant Robotics, Kahani has not announced a retail price but has said it should give growers a return on their investment in two years.

Abundant Robotics uses a robotic arm and vacuum tube, guided by a computer aided by cameras and sensors, to detect apples, suck them off trees at one apple per second and deliver them into bins. The picker detects 95 percent of apples and isn’t bothered by leaves or new growth but can be obstructed by limbs.

FFRobotics uses several robotic arms with three-pronged grippers for picking and placing fruit onto conveyors, which take it to bins without vacuum tubes. The machine “combines precise but simple robotic controls, fast and accurate image processing and advanced algorithms for picking and distinguishing usable produce and damaged, diseased and unripe fruit,” according to the company website. It is adaptable to apple variety and tree canopy structure.

The harvester can pick thousands of apples per hour and 85 to 96 percent of a crop, depending on the tree shape, classic trimmed or two-dimensional fruiting wall, Kahani said.

It can pick 10 times more usable fruit than the average human picker and has future capability of data collection and analysis regarding fruit picked per tree, acre and orchard, according to the website.

Kahani said the machine is adaptable for picking pears, peaches, citrus fruits, mangoes and pomegranates.



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