Stemilt Growers is using elevated platforms that are able to guide themselves through the orchards. ( Courtesy Stemilt Growers LLC )

It will be a few years before Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., uses robots to actually pick its apples, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director.

Meanwhile, the company is using elevated platforms that are able to guide themselves through the orchards, eliminating the need for workers to climb ladders to reach the fruit, he said.

The machines are better for workers ergonomically than climbing ladders, and they enable higher, faster production and improve the quality of the harvest, he said.

Since the platforms are equipped with LED lights, workers can pick at night and avoid the heat that often characterizes the early fall days.

“They light up the orchards like a football field,” Pepperl said.

“At night, it’s like daylight out there.”

They even have stereos that pump out music for the workers.

So far, the company hasn’t found any robotic pickers that work, Pepperl said.

Machines that shake fruit off the trees aren’t appropriate for fresh-market apples, he said, because they would cause bruising.

Eventually, a machine with a robotic arm that reaches out and picks the apples will be developed, he said.

The prototypes that the company has looked at so far don’t work, he said, “but they’re great models to work on to try to perfect.”

Pepperl remains optimistic.

“In the next two to five years, you’re going to see a robot picker that works,” he said.