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Robot Hand Picks Apples Without Bruising
A robotic apple picker being developed by Washington State University (WSU) may solve orchard labor problems. The robot uses pressure sensitive “hands” to harvest the fruit.

    “We analyzed how a human hand picks apples, and 3 fingers pulling and twisting the fruit seems to be most efficient,” says Manoj Karkee, at WSU’s research center in Prosser, Wash. “We studied the force needed with different varieties of apples to harvest without bruising, breaking or puncturing.”

    Karkee explains that the robotic hand’s pressure can be adjusted to the apple variety being picked. Special 3D vision guides the hand to the fruit.

    “Any robotic picker has to be able to see the fruit,” says Karkee. “Any tree canopy, foliage or branches will block accessibility. It will work best in the new ‘fruit wall’ orchard design where 90 to 95 percent of the fruit is easily visible.”

    Other robotic pickers, including one being developed by Abundant Robotics, use vacuum. Past FARM SHOW stories have highlighted several others (Vol. 34, No. 4; Vol. 37, No. 2).

    “Vacuum pickers are less complex, needing only a tube and may be lower cost,” says Karkee. “However, they have a higher bruising potential. They may work for some varieties that are tougher, such as Fuji, but not so well with others that are more tender, like Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp.”

    Karkee estimates the hand picker will require another 3 to 5 years of development work.

    “Last year it left 10 to 15 percent of the apples on the tree,” says Karkee. “This year, we are trying to improve that and improve speed.”

    Karkee’s group has received several patents on the process, and he hopes companies working in agricultural automation will adopt them. Initially he expects the picker to be used on pears as well as apples.

    “The sensing technology and 3D localizer used in this picker could be used on any fruit or vegetable picker,” says Karkee.

    Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Manoj Karkee, Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, Washington State University, 24106 N. Bunn Rd., Prosser, Wash. 99350 (ph 509 786-9208 or 515 441-2144; manoj.karkee@wsu.edu).

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2017 - Volume #41, Issue #3