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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What labor shortage? Robot apple pickers on the way

By Mike Irwin Wenatchee World

WENATCHEE – Worry over ag labor shortages could be a thing of the past if two engineering firms hit goals to market robotic fruit-picking machines by 2019.

The two competing companies – Abundant Robotics Inc. in California and Israel-based FFRobotics – have plans to manufacture and market commercial robotic harvesters sometime in the next 18 to 24 months, representatives told a global audience of fruit growers here Thursday.

The two reps gave presentations to hundreds of orchardists, packers and shippers from 13 countries gathered last week in Wenatchee for the 60th Annual Conference of the International Fruit Tree Association.

The presentations on Thursday focused mostly on apple harvesting, but both reps said the machines could be adapted to pick other fruit – oranges, peaches and maybe even cherries.

Advantages of automation include no pickers’ bags, no ladders, no hauling to distant bins, less bruising and – depending on operator schedules – the possibility of 24-hour harvesting. Manufacturers are aiming for a 2-year return on investment, with the cost of machine harvesting equal to or less than human crews.

“The ultimate goal is for our machines to be as good as humans when it comes to harvesting,” said Dan Steere, co-founder and CEO of Abundant Robotics. “We seem to be on track.”

In a video presentation, Steere showed Abundant harvesters using a vacuum system to softly pluck – or suck – fruit from orchard trellis systems loaded with Galas and Fujis. Cameras and sensors guide the machine to pick fruit of the right size and quality with accuracy that’s nearly equal to that of human workers.

Modern trellis-and-wire orchard systems “will drive future automation in the fruit industry,” said Steere. Orchards designed today for maximum efficiency in pruning, thinning and harvesting will likely determine the engineering of mechanical harvesters – what they look like, how they work – for years to come.

Fruit growers have become comfortable that this type of robotic automation is no longer “speculative,” said Steere. “It’s here now. It’s on your doorstep.”

Avi Kahani, co-founder and CEO of FFRobotics, said mechanical harvesters will bring “a paradigm shift” to international fruit industries as prototype machines evolve and efficiencies develop.

FFRobotics has engineered a harvester that uses robotic arms with three-fingered grippers to gently grab fruit and either twist it (apples) or clip it (oranges) from the branch. Using anywhere from four to 12 robotic arms, the machine will pick 10,000 apples an hour.

The idea behind the FFRobotics harvester, said Kahani, “is to have one machine able to harvest multiple types of crops. Depending on the fruit, growers can change the software, not the machine.”

No matter the type of machine, said the robotics experts, harvesting 100 percent of crop by automated harvester probably isn’t in the cards. More realistically, machines will be able to pick 80 to 90 percent of fruit on a trellis row, with the rest left for manual – make that human – picking crews.

Final size and performance specs on each machine – along with prices – will be revealed in coming months, said the reps.

“Orchards are ready for mechanical harvesting,” said Kahani, referring to trellis systems now common on fruit acreage. “Now the machines are nearly ready, too, and they’re on their way.”