Robotic fruit harvester showcased in Tel Aviv

Two Israeli firms used a Microsoft research and development showcase in Tel Aviv last month to demonstrate an apple-harvesting robot capable of locating and picking the fruit that they say is less than two years away from commercial use.

Fresh Fruit Robotic Harvester: vision-guided robotic arm detects the fruit in three dimensions prior to picking - image: FFRobotics/CEAR Lab
Fresh Fruit Robotic Harvester: vision-guided robotic arm detects the fruit in three dimensions prior to picking - image: FFRobotics/CEAR Lab

The developers even used smaller robots to deliver the picked fruit to guests, among them Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella. Developed by FFRobotics and CEAR Lab, the Fresh Fruit Robotic Harvester incorporates an advanced robotic arm and computer vision on board a standard Clearpath Grizzly robotic utility vehicle. The harvester "offers a unique opportunity for farmers/growers to reduce costs significantly by supplementing or replacing human pickers from the dwindling pool of harvesting labour", FFRobotics claimed.

CEAR (Civil, Environmental, Agricultural Robotics) Lab was founded at Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa by assistant professor Amir Degani. "Because cost is very important in agriculture, we're trying to reduce price and find the optimal robot to do specific tasks," he said.

"Different tasks, although they may look very similar to us - apple picking or orange picking or peach picking - are actually very different if you look at the robot's kinematics. We're finding the optimal robot for a specific task, but also finding the optimal tree design in order to further simplify the robot."

He added: "You already see fruiting walls that are nearly planar. They did this to make it a bit simpler for human harvesters, but this is even more important for robotic harvesting. Trying to get a robot to harvest apples on a totally natural tree is extremely complex in terms of vision and perception. People have tried it in the past and it makes everything too expensive for farmers to use."

The vision-guided robot arm, which detects the fruit in three dimensions before picking it, was provided by FFRobotics. Its co-founder and chief executive Avi Kahnani said of its commercialisation: "Assuming working during the day only, the robot could potentially save farmers 25 per cent in harvesting costs. This summer we plan to test a fully integrated system in the apple orchard, picking fruits from the trees all the way to the fruit bin. The first commercial system will be available for the 2017 apple-picking season."

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