• Rikki Lambert

Picking up the slack - the rise of the machines in agriculture


New autonomous robotic technology is just one of the latest developments to assist farmers in overcoming production costs or labour supply for harvesting their crops.


From robots that spray weeds with herbicide - or even shoot them with lasers - to Australian research indicating herding livestock via drone distresses animals less than via dog or animal means, agriculture is striving for ways to implement technology-based solutions to lift productivity and profitability.


On Wednesday, Monash University announced that its researchers led by Dr Chao Chen in their Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have developed an autonomous harvesting robot capable of identifying, picking and depositing apples in as little as seven seconds at full capacity.


Following extensive trials in February and March at Fankhauser Apples in Drouin, Victoria, the robot was able to harvest more than 85 per cent of all reachable apples in the canopy as identified by its vision system.


Of all apples harvested, less than 6 per cent were damaged due to stem removal. Apples without stems can still be sold, but don't necessarily fit the cosmetic guidelines of some retailers.


With the robot limited to half its maximum speed, the median harvest rate was 12.6 seconds per apple. In streamlined pick-and-drop scenarios, the cycle time reduced to roughly nine seconds.


By using the robot's capacity speed, individual apple harvesting time can drop to as little as seven seconds.


Dr Chen, the Director of Laboratory of Motion Generation and Analysis (LMGA), said:

"Our developed vision system can not only positively identify apples in a tree within its range in an outdoors orchard environment by means of deep learning, but also identify and categorise obstacles, such as leaves and branches, to calculate the optimum trajectory for apple extraction.
"The robot grasps apples with a specially designed, pneumatically powered, soft gripper with four independently actuated fingers and suction system that grasps and extracts apples efficiently, while minimising damage to the fruit and the tree itself.
"In addition, the suction system draws the apple from the canopy into the gripper, reducing the need for the gripper to reach into the canopy and potentially damaging its surroundings. The gripper can extract more than 85 per cent of all apples from the canopy that were planned for harvesting."