A major milestone for the apple industry was reached this spring in a remote New Zealand orchard: the world’s first commercial robotic harvest.

The harvest started in February and will end in late April or May in one of New Zealand’s largest orchards, T&G Global, with a machine built and operated by Abundant Robotics of Hayward, Calif.

Using robots to replace human pickers has been a decades-long dream of the apple industry. Robots can save millions of dollars in labor costs and alleviate picker shortages that have forced many orchards to hire expensive foreign guestworkers. Just last year, Washington state’s $2.5 billion apple industry hired 24,862 guestworkers.

Dan Steere, Abundant Robotics co-founder and CEO, said he knows of no one else in the world who has commercially harvested apples using robots. He would not reveal how much fruit his robot is picking in New Zealand but did say it’s more than small trial amounts. He said the robot was used mostly in Royal Gala, Jazz and Envy varieties.

“I believe we are at a tipping point where over the next 10 years robotic harvest will become the norm. I think it’s the way everyone will want to harvest apples because it will be the most productive, like combines and wheat,” Steere told Capital Press. “No one harvests wheat by hand anymore.”

Robotic pickers will be affordable for all growers, large and small, he predicted. All high-density orchards, whether 12-foot-tall spindle trees or trees trained to trellis wire, can be pruned and thinned to maximize robot accessibility to 70-90% of the fruit.

“They have driven robotic picking more than anyone before, and this is fantastic news,” said Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee.

“How to mechanize orchard systems for automated apple harvest was one of the reasons the commission was founded in 1969. It’s been a top research priority for a long time. Now it seems like we are finally there,” Hanrahan said. “It will make a very big difference for producers because harvest is our most expensive part of production.”

The commission awarded $550,000 in grants for Abundant Robotics’ research in 2015 and 2016.

Abundant Robotics began working on its concept in 2013, received a $10 million investment from Google a couple of years ago and will spend about $12 million, Steere said.

The company has weighed the physical and economic aspects using information from growers to make a feasible product, Hanrahan said.

One problem has been a robot’s ability to detect fruit hidden by leaves and limbs, she said. Removing leaves before harvest or revamping tree architecture have been considered, she said.

However, Abundant Robotics’ Steere said leaves and limbs have not been a big problem because his system detects 95% of the apples on a tree. The problem, he said, has been accessing the fruit. Trellis wire and limbs got in the way, and that was solved by pruning and thinning, he said.

The robot can reach anywhere in a normal high-density tree canopy, he said.

Abundant Robotics plans to operate as a contracted picker and have multiple machines harvesting for several Washington tree fruit companies this fall. Steere would not say how many companies or which ones but that he will expand to more in the fall of 2020.

Other players

Abundant Robotics is not the only player in developing a robotic picker.

Another company, FFRobotics of Emeq-Heffer, Israel, may be close on Abundant Robotics’ heels. It will hold pre-sale demonstrations in Europe and the U.S. this fall, but owner Avi Kahani won’t say when it will be ready for market.

FFRobotics has developed and used its prototype in Europe but now is working on mounting its robot on the Bandit Cub, a harvest assist platform manufactured by Automated Ag Systems in Moses Lake, Wash.

Although not robotic, a third option is Automated Ag’s Cyclone harvest assist machine. It has vacuum tubes, a decelerator and a bin filler from DBR Conveyor Concepts of Conklin, Mich. The Cyclone placed in the Top 10 New Products at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif., in February.

The DBR decelerator, bin filler and a shorter vacuum tube will also be used with the FFRobotics robot mounted on the Bandit Cub.

Hanrahan said it’s great to have several companies engaged because it creates more innovation and accelerates the pace of development.

The Cyclone is seen as a last step before robotics. People on different levels of the mobile platform pick into small buckets strapped to their chests that feed into vacuum tubes that move the apples to bins. This eliminates picking into bags and dumping them by hand into bins.

The Cyclone was field tested last fall in Washington and California apple orchards and will work with pears, citrus fruit and avocados, said J.J. Dagorret, Automated Ag owner.

Several Cyclones have been sold for this season — two to Stemilt Ag Services in Wenatchee and one to Riveridge Produce in Sparta, Mich. There are also interested potential buyers in Pennsylvania, Chile and New Zealand, he said.

He planned to launch commercial sales this year but is holding back one more year to fine tune the apple distributor to make sure bins are filled evenly when the machine is on a slope.

Platforms and prices

Automated Ag has been the leader in developing and manufacturing harvest-assist platforms. It has sold 825 Bandit Xpress motorized platforms from 2013 through 2018 and 165 of the more compact Bandit Cubs in 2018, Dagorret said.

The platforms are also used for pruning, thinning and training trees. They have sold well because they fit between rows, he said. The prices are $65,000 for the Bandit Xpress and $68,000 for the shorter and narrower Cub.

The Cyclone harvest assist system can be added to the Xpress or Cub for $45,000, Dagorret said.

Those prices are a key selling point compared to the robots. Steere and Kahani, principals of Abundant Robotics and FFRobotics, respectively, won’t provide exact prices, but their machines would likely retail for several hundred thousand dollars each.

Steere said he isn’t planning to sell machines but instead will provide an affordably priced contract picking service using his machines.

Dagorret believes the market is large enough for the Cyclone and both robotic systems to do well.

Comparisons

An Abundant Robotics machine is capable of picking one apple per second. In New Zealand this spring it was running at 10 to 20 bins in 24 hours, Steere said.

“It’s designed for a target of 30 to 40 bins per day. That’s in a full mature canopy of 12-foot high trees in a high-density system,” he said.

The FFRobotics machine and the Cyclone can pick six bins per hour, and pickers on the Xpress platform can do five to six bins per hour, Dagorret said.

Experienced pickers with ladders can do five to 10 bins per hour, but overall the average is about 35% less than using the Xpress platform, he said.

Dagorret estimated it would take up to six Abundant Robotic machines, worth about $500,000 each, to pick the same amount of fruit in an hour as one FFRobotics machine at about $400,000 or one Cyclone using human pickers on a mobile platform for $110,000.

Steere had no comment.

Abundant Robotics uses a single robotic picker vacuum arm sucking apples off trees. FFRobotics uses eight arms per side of the machine, picking with padded, three-prong, electrical hands and meters fruit flow on a conveyor to a short vacuum, decelerator and bin filler.

The FFRobotics picker can also be taken off the Bandit Cub so the platform can be used for pruning, thinning and training trees. The Abundant Robotics unit is built only for picking.

The Bandit Cub platform carrying the FFRobotics unit can pick up empty bins with its front end and deposit full bins out the back for tractors with forklifts to haul away. Abundant Robotics picker only handles bins from its back.

Neither system is designed to clip apple stems. Human pickers clip stems on high-value varieties to keep them from puncturing apples when they are in bins.

“Avi (Kahani) says he has a solution for stem clipping. I have yet to see it,” Dagorret said.

Steere said he doesn’t think it’s a problem and would not say if he’s working on it.

Grower comments

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers LLC, parent company of Stemilt Ag Services, said he is excited to see so many technology companies working to find better ways to harvest fruit with automation or improved ergonomics.

Stemilt’s testing of the Cyclone has been encouraging, he said.

“We have been pleased with Automated Ag’s equipment and have integrated those products around our orchards. J.J. (Dagorett) is passionate about solving problems in practical ways,” Mathison said. “In addition, we continue to look at other manufacturers in this area.”

Nick Plath, 30, the farm and field staff manager at Washington Fruit & Produce Co. in Yakima, said as a millennial he would like to use robots or the Cyclone now but thinks they have a ways to go.

“I had the Cyclone on my farm last year. J.J.’s a buddy but they need to figure out how to be gentler on the fruit for it to take off,” Plath said.

Washington Fruit & Produce has about 10 Bandit Xpress mobile platforms but won’t be ordering any Cyclones soon, he said.

There was too much bruising from fruit going through the system too fast, he said.

The Xpress platforms pay for themselves in pruning and thinning but not so much in picking, Plath said.

“You can pick faster by sending a ground crew (for low fruit) and the platform (for higher fruit), but the cost is the same or more,” he said.

Dagorret said the bruising was caused by pickers putting apples two at a time into their buckets and the vacuum tubes. That’s because they clip the stems two at a time.

“It’s training. They need to be put in one at a time,” he said. “The vacuum is 15 feet per second and then the decelerator. You have apple-to-apple contact when there’s two at a time.”

Transformation needed

Karen Lewis, a Washington State University Extension tree fruit specialist in Ephrata, has studied mechanical pruning, thinning and harvesting for several years.

“I’ve been optimistic we would have fully automated machines,” she said. “The technology is there. The components are there. It’s about marrying the right components to an orchard system in the hot and dusty outdoors. If our trees grew in a Costco warehouse, it would be different.”

The most important thing is having the highest percentage of fruit accessible and for the grower to know what they can afford in preparing a robot-ready orchard, Lewis said.

“Solutions up to now have been incremental,” Lewis said. “What the industry needs is transformational.”

Central Washington field reporter

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