Growers check out robotic apple picker

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Joe Davidson, Washington State University mechanical engineering doctoral student, demonstrates use of a robotic apple picker at a WSU field day in Prosser, Wash., on Sept. 17. Such a device could be a big labor saver for the apple industry.

PROSSER, Wash. — A robotic apple picker successfully picked two apples from an artificial tree but the third apple fell to the floor during a Washington State University demonstration.

The picker was a star item at a Sept. 17 field day and open house at the new $4.5 million facilities of the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser.

A robotic picker would be a big development in the apple industry in labor savings and meeting labor shortages, but Joe Davidson, a mechanical engineering doctoral student demonstrating the picker, said it is still five to six years from commercialization. The apple that fell on the floor was supposed to go into a tube and into a container.

Trying to mimic the human eye and hand to pick fruit with speed while not bruising it is difficult to do, Davidson said.

So far, the WSU robotic apple picker averages 6.8 seconds to pick an apple in a lab setting compared with 1 to 2 seconds for a human to pick an apple in an orchard, he said. The best recorded time of previous attempts at robotic apple pickers is 8 to 9 seconds, he said.

Big challenges are speed and getting the robot’s vision system to see apples hidden behind leaves and branches, he said

Cameras, sensors and algorithms are used in identifying fruit, shape, color and texture. The vision system has been field tested but orchard testing of the robotic arm and picking hand will begin at Prosser in the next two weeks, Davidson said.

The project is headed by Manoj Karkee, WSU assistant professor of biological systems engineering.

Among more than 100 growers and agriculture industry members watching the demonstration was David Allan, co-owner of Allan Bros. Inc., an apple grower, packer and shipper in Naches, northwest of Yakima.

“The concept is very appealing, but development has a ways to go,” Allan said.

Labor is tight and the industry is becoming more and more dependent on H-2A visa foreign workers for picking fruit, he said.

There will be less incentive for people to come as H-2A workers as the economies of their countries improve, he said. The program also could be disrupted by political problems between governments, he said.

Robotic pickers will ride on mobile platforms, feeding apples into vacuum tubes leading to bins. Platforms will need to be all-wheel drive and all-wheel steering to negotiate slopes, Allan said.

With machines likely costing $500,000 to $1 million apiece, they will have to operate quickly to be cost effective, he said. That means developing planar or fruiting wall trees so the robot finds fruit on a single plane and doesn’t have to reach deeper into foliage, he said.

Other demonstrations and presentations at the field day included research in soils, pollination, irrigation, use of light unmanned helicopters and drones, orchard bin management and mechanical pruning.

Jim Moyer, associate dean of research and director of the agricultural research center, talked about the $4.5 million remodel and expansion of the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.

“Three of the last four years, WSU has been in the top five institutions receiving competitive grants from USDA,” Moyer said. “This is a tremendous accomplishment and should give you confidence that the leverage of support you (growers) give brings federal funds back to Washington,” he said. “In today’s climate, it’s essential we all work together. The relationship between faculty and stakeholders is a very strong partnership.”

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