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New Zealand tests robotic kiwi picker

A robotic picker for kiwi may be available commercially in New Zealand in two years.

A New Zealand company, PlusGroup Horticulture Limited, is testing a robotic kiwi picker and says it may be available commercially in 2015.

Steve Saunders, managing director of the company, talked about the system at the Washington State Horticultural Association annual meeting in Wenatchee, Dec. 3.

Four robotic hands, on a self-propelled vehicle, use optical sensors to detect kiwi, pick it and swallow it in tubes that transport it to bins. The machine gets 82 percent of fruit and the rest is picked by human hands, Saunders said.

The machine picks 24 hours a day and may sell for $100,000 to $125,000, with a three-year payback at $20 per bin, Saunders said. The $20 is about current labor costs and the goal is to contain costs and mitigate labor shortages, he said.

A robotic apple harvester was tried in France in 2007 but detected only 80 percent of the fruit, pulled 30 percent of stems and picked six to eight apples per minute, said Terence Robinson, Cornell University fruit physiologist. Humans detect 100 percent of the fruit, had just 2 to 3 percent stem pulls and can pick 33 apples per minute, he said.

“That’s too slow and expensive to get into,” Robinson said of the French experiment.

Partial mechanization of eliminating ladders and getting bins closer to pickers is better along with human eye-hand coordination to pick, he said.

— Dan Wheat



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