Robotic picking machines could begin to help reduce the need for fruit harvesters by 80% or more within the decade.

Manoj Karkee, an assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at Washington State University, Prosser, said a research team has been awarded a grant of $548,000 over three years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop tree fruit harvesting technology where robots and humans work together.

The research team hopes to assist in delivering a robotic machine to harvest apples that could be commercialized in the next decade, Karkee said.

Karkee said there has been some work on components of a robotics pickers.

“We don’t have a complete working prototype yet, but I think within a year from now we will be putting all those components together and have something working in the laboratory,” he said.

Funding for the research was awarded through the National Robotics Initiative, a joint program of the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute for Food and Agriculture, National Institutes of Health and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

From the prototype in the lab, researchers hope to be able to deploy a field model by 2016 for field evaluation. Commercial prototypes could be available within 10 years, he said.

There have been ongoing efforts around the world to develop robotic harvesters but none have been successfully commercialized.

Hidden fruit

One of the major difficulties those projects to develop robotic machines to harvest apples and citrus have encountered is the inability for the machines to see fruit hidden by the tree’s canopy. In the past, those systems could only find about two-thirds of fruit.

That drawback is a major focus of the WSU research effort, and Karkee said the focus is on using human intelligence with robotic pickers to guide their efforts when needed.

In addition, the machine will take images of fruit from both sides of the canopy. Together, the measures could increase the capability to identify nearly all the fruit.

Meanwhile, Karkee said the robotic arm to pick fruit will be enhanced with research that will study how human workers pick apples and use that knowledge to change the way robot arms pick.

“We are hoping and believe that will help to bring the technology much closer to commercialization, which hasn’t been happening in the past even with the sustained effort of the last three or four decades,” he said.

Karkee believes the robotic system should save up to 90% of the labor currently used picking fruit, which would be a significant incentive for growers to embrace the technology.

“If we don’t get labor use reduced 50% or 60% off the current level, growers won’t be very interested in it,” he said.