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Crewing orchards is notoriously difficult in New Zealand. Combined with growing challenges such as better pollination systems, robust quality control and traceability and cost competitive practice, the time was ripe for automation innovation in horticulture. Robotics Plus is proving that automated systems in horticulture not only work but they can be engineered to better practice and reduce costs.
Owner and Managing Director of RoboticsPlus, Steve Saunders started in pack houses. Early on he recognised the need to innovate within the horticulture industry to ensure efficiency, best practice and cost competitiveness.
Steve’s vision and industry knowledge collided with technical know-how when he met the then PhD candidate, mechatronics engineer, Alistair Scarfe. Steve was visiting Massey University as part of a Zespri organised group of industry practitioners with a view to providing the mechatronics team with practical feedback. Both men wanted to develop technology and capability with a focus on automated systems for horticulture and such was the genesis of RoboticsPlus, a company focused on developing mechanisation, automation, robotics and sensor (MARS) technologies for horticulture and other primary industries.
First up for the company was the ‘QuadDuster™’, a quadbike-based kiwifruit pollination system. It was a natural starting place that dovetailed well with Steve’s kiwifruit pollen business ‘Pollen Plus’. Pollen Plus harvests and processes kiwifruit pollen.
The system was developed to improve pollination which is vital for yields and fruit quality. Insufficient pollination of kiwifruit flowers has been linked to small and misshapen fruit that is not suitable for export markets and thus reduces returns to growers.
Pollen is like gold and the QuadDuster™ allows for the even distribution of dry pollen into the vine canopy. Spreading the pollen as a dry powder, as opposed to being mixed in a water solution, allows for bees to collect and transfer the dry pollen that didn’t landed directly on the flowers’ stigma during application.
The entire system is electronically controlled, metered and tracked, including pollen dispenser monitoring to ensure consistent delivery; cruise control speed setting on the quad bikes, and GPS tracking to show the orchardist where the bikes have been.
There are presently 20 QuadDuster™ systems operating in NZ – in 2015 they covered about 25% of New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry.
This has in some regards been a proof of concept for the team in terms of how they capitalise on the technology. The technology is leased, thus reducing capital costs and maintenance issues for orchardists.
It also means that the technology has to be cost effective for both Robotics Plus and the end user. Robotics Plus COO Dr. Alistair Scarfe points out that anyone can create clever automated systems with an endless budget but they wanted to create systems that were not just comparable to current on orchard costs but were even more cost effective. Alongside their industry insider knowledge, this is a key point of difference that Robotics Plus brings to orchard automation – the driving need to make systems that are genuinely economical and practical for commercial deployment. This is relevant for the projects the company has gone onto such as the Robotic Apple Packing Cell and the kiwifruit harvester.
The Robotic Apple Packing Cell is presently a beta prototype moving into commercial trial in 2016. In the 2015 season it packed 1.47 million apples and proved its efficiency with more consistent quality presentation than achieved by people. Growers involved in the preliminary trials were thrilled.
The commercial trials will deploy 6 robot cells. The robot cells are made to work in standard industry packhouses attaching to a standard compact grader. The system packs 120 apples per minute, orienting the fruit so all of the stems are lying horizontal in the trays and pointing in the same direction, all while having the colour side of the apple facing up for optimum presentation. Camera technology is employed in this system but it’s the vision algorythims used to orient the stem in the right direction that’s the really smart technology.
One robot in essence does the work of 2 people. The robot uses pneumatics (suction cups) to handle the fruit. This is gentle and assures that no human hands touch the fruit during packing, thereby reducing contamination issues. The team are also looking to add in a data capture system for tracability. Tracability will allow tracking of providence to counteract counterfeit fruit in international markets. It will also be of value in tracing contamination.
The commercial trials will allow Robotics Plus to get tangible figures to develop a lease rate.
Robotics Plus is presently working on the Multipurpose Orchard Robotics Project, a four year collaboration with University of Auckland, University of Waikato and Plant and Food Research aiming to automate the harvesting and pollination of kiwifruit and apples. The collaboration is working with private and government funding including a significant grant from MBIE.
The Multipurpose Orchard Robotics system is about developing a central system that further modules can be added to for different tasks such as pollination, spraying, harvesting etc. The project has grown from RoboticPlus work on their kiwifruit harvester.
The centre of this approach is a sensing system that can determine what is happening in the machine’s environment. For instance, being able to distinguish fruit for harvesting, flowers for pollination, or objects around the machine for navigation. The biggest challenge of making these systems reliable is developing them to automatically cope with the vast amount of variability within both crop and environment. Unlike most automation within factories that deal with man-made parts, everything from item appearance, size, shape, position, etc. are inconsistent.
The aim is to produce world leading export technology to meet global labour shortages, rising orchard productivity costs and to address issues like bee colony collapse disorder which affects fruit pollination, reducing fruit size and yields.