Good Fruit Grower

November 2016

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32 NOVEMBER 2016 GOOD FRUIT GROWER I t's no secret that hired labor is the most significant variable cost in apple production, representing as much as half a grower's total pro- duction costs, and many labor-in- tensive tasks are time sensitive. None more so than harvest. Decades ago, as Washington growers faced a shortage of workers, the industry identi- fi ed harvest automation — development of a machine that could pick the fruit as quickly as people could without damag- ing trees or bruising fruit — as a research focus. Yet today, even though some grow- ers have deployed modern mechanical platforms to speed workers and reduce the risk of falls from ladders, thousands of people are still needed to manually pluck apples from trees each season. So, when might automation of apple harvest become a reality? Perhaps sooner than you think. A vacuum harvester under development by Abundant Robotics of Menlo Park, California, has the apple industry closer than it's ever been to fully automating harvest — a potential game changer for growers and the industry at large. Abundant CEO Dan Steere is careful about making any pronouncements that could sound like promises to the indus- try. Though the company is moving into a commercialization phase with its tech- nology, it still has work ahead to perfect the machine. But the goal is to have the first such harvester working commer- cially in orchards in 2018. A long process Evolving technologies have been grad- ually changing the way the apple industry does business for years. Advancements in optical scanning and robotic systems are elevating packing houses to new levels of effi ciency and production. In the orchard, growers are employing temperature and moisture sensors, GPS technology and aerial imaging to better manage orchards and quickly recognize problems. Picking fruit is another story. An orchard is not a standardized work envi- ronment, and any number of variables, including ground slope, trellis type and angle, pruning style and even weather, complicate mechanization efforts. In addition, the human mind makes hun- dreds of minor decisions in the orchard each day, something a robotic harvester must be able to do as well. "We're asking a lot when it comes to something as complex as an automated harvester," said Jim McFerson, director of Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center and former manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. "But when you really examine any major techno- logical innovation — I suspect it's true in areas of agriculture and many other areas — it doesn't seem to come quickly or smoothly or ever ahead of schedule." The Research Commission, which identified an automated harvester as a research focus as early as 1969, has helped to fund several research projects toward that goal over the years, but there have been challenges: Development of an automated tomato harvester in the 1960s raised concerns about the societal impacts of mechanizing horticulture and displacing thousands of workers. Enthusiasm — and in some cases funding — waned for auto- mation research, creating a gap in gradu- ate students, scientists and engineers to help develop automation technologies for agriculture. "We haven't really caught up," McFerson said. A gulf between research and appli- cation creates a high hurdle for anyone looking to bring a product to market. "It's so diffi cult to get through this no-man's land, and there's extra effort you have to go through to close this gulf," said Vacuum picker under development brings the apple industry closer than ever to automating harvest. by Shannon Dininny / photos by TJ Mullinax Centerpiece A Fuji apple is sucked from a tree by an automated vacuum harvester built by Abundant long and tricky path to automated The

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