Apple harvesting robot plucks a piece of fruit every 7 seconds

Apple harvesting robot plucks a piece of fruit every 7 seconds
An apple-harvesting robot created by Monash University researchers is put through its paces in the field
An apple-harvesting robot created by Monash University researchers is put through its paces in the field
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An apple-harvesting robot created by Monash University researchers is put through its paces in the field
An apple-harvesting robot created by Monash University researchers is put through its paces in the field

Like many industries across the world, Australia's fruit-picking sector has been impacted heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a massive void in the labor market that would normally be filled by backpackers looking to make buck on the road. Local researchers have cooked up a creative partial solution to this problem, developing a fruit-picking robot that can harvest apples from orchards at high speed.

Robots stand to benefit the world of agriculture in all sorts of ways, from inspecting crops, to herding sheep, to combing fields and zapping weeds with lasers. We're also starting to see how they can play a role on the food production side of things, with robots emerging that can pick raspberries and harvest iceberg lettuce, or even prune fruit trees to keep them healthy and free from disease.

Researchers at Australia's Monash University Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have turned their attention to apples. The robot uses a mix of cameras and deep learning algorithms to scan the trees of an orchard and detect the pieces of fruit, which requires it to process information on their shape, orientation and the location of the stem-branch joint to minimize damage to the produce and the surrounding foliage.

“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 minimizing damage to the fruit and the tree itself," says Dr Chao Chen, who led the research. “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.”

According to the team, the robot an identify more than 90 percent of apples within the view of its camera and a distance of around 1.2 m (4 ft). It says the machine can operate in all lighting and weather conditions, and requires less than 200 milliseconds to process the image of an apple.

The researchers have been conducting field trials of their apple-harvesting robot this year, and report that it damaged less than 6 percent of its haul by inadvertently removing their stems (though these stem-less apples still may be sold by some retailers). Running the machine at half speed saw it identify, pick and deposit an apple every 12.6 seconds, while streamlining the pick-and-drop process saw this reduced to around 9 seconds. Ultimately, running the robot at full capacity cut this harvesting time to 7 seconds per apple.

The video below shows the robot in action.

Robot Apple Harvester 3

Source: Monash University

I'm not sure that dropping each apple from that height is a very good idea, except if they are due to be used for the cider industry. I certainly wouldn't want to see any of them ending up in a supermarket fresh fruit department.
Any apple picker dropping apples like this machine, would be sacked on the spot. In addition, a human apple picker can operate much faster, by using TWO hands, simultaneously. At its present speed, the apple season would be over, and the apples rotten, before this machine had picked anything of consequence.
Altronix: Yes,that seems to be a bruise inducing drop. 7 seconds per apple seems like a long time. The picker's motion could be refined so as not to waste time swiveling it's arm aimlessly before dropping the apple in the collector. However,if it could operate 24/7 with no cost for labor,that might make up for some inefficiencies.
Altronix nailed it. As a kid and teen I picked apples and the bosses were always scrupulous about the importance of being gentle with the fruit. Anyone who treated apples the way this machine is doing would be let go.
Bob Flint
Average human picker can do in 1.3 seconds, without awkward rotations, dropped into foam lined tubes.
Well, when these robots are released en masse and all day and night, it's goodbye to those jobs. Humans need to drastically curb how many children they have because someday soon robots will be taking all but the most complicated jobs...
The deerhunter
Speed and probable damage to the apples would appear to be serious problems. Interestingly, I was unaware that apples needed to be picked with their steam attached. Possibly Apple's age quicker with the stem removed otherwise it seems a bit strange.
Adrian Akau
Very entertaining video. This would be just the first of apple picking robots. I am sure that better ones will be on the way.
Nelson Hyde Chick
We don't need any stinking humans.
Bob Flint
Assuming the machines can work in the dark, would need 3 working 24/7 to match the speed of one average picker, 3 machines estimated @ $300k vs 1 seasonal worker @ 12hrs@ aprox.$15/hr= $180 per day, not feasible unless the machines can work the rest of the year full time some where else.