Almost every orchard and vineyard manager loves and hates the picking season. This is when, literally, the fruits of their labour are borne, but many years it is a gamble as to whether a grower will get enough dedicated pickers when the crunch is on.
As in so many other fields automation is coming to this industry; although it will still be at least a couple of years yet. Vision Robotics Corporation out of San Diego, California is working on a vine pruner, an apple “scout” and other agricultural devices like a lettuce thinner.
The company states: “Despite the fact that an assortment of researchers have been working on both robotic automation of fresh fruit care and harvesting for decades, there remains no viable, cost-effective approach towards robotic mechanization. The cost of automated harvesting is based on picking speed; the faster the better. Any robot operating in an orchard will have multiple arms to operate efficiently, yet coordinating a multi-arm picker is difficult.”
All of company’s products are still undergoing development, but the stated aim is to manufacture marketable agricultural robotics within the short term.
The apple scout is not a harvester, but rather a machine that can accurately assess the crop load. Tony Koselka, one of Vision Robotics’ founders, explains, “The apple project got pretty far and works well for the most aggressively trained orchards. In short, it does an excellent job of identifying the apples it sees, even green apples.”
The problem he says is finding apples hidden by leaves, branches or the trunk. The challenge is to design software that can make an accurate estimate of the percentage of apples, both ripe and unripe, that are hidden from view at any given angle to provide information on optimum harvest times. Development of the apple scout was begun using investment money from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, but that money is exhausted and further developments are on hold.
More advanced is the grape vine pruner.
Koselka says the newest version of the pruner is expected back at any time. This device is totally automated and it can be unsettling to see a driverless tractor inch its way down a row, dragging the pruner behind it.
Inside two robotic arms user lasers to measure and gauge where to prune the vines. According to Koselka, “Over the next couple of weeks, we will integrate the hardware changes and some of the software that enables better spur cuts for the canes that are completely removed. We anticipate performing some real pruning next winter and have true beta units in the field with growers the following year.”
To see a video of an earlier prototype of the pruner, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r13g_bUw_cQ.