Opinion: harvest mechanization far away but not distant
By Arturo Calderón, Universidad de Chile researcher and University of California Davis PhD
I had the pleasure of being invited by the renowned U.S.-based Chilean researcher Dr. Carlos Crisosto to a workshop about emerging technologies in fruit production. This workshop, organized by the Postharvest Technology Center at the University of California Davis, brought together more than 60 representatives from research institutes and the horticultural industry from a diverse range of countries such as the U.S., Belgium, Italy and New Zealand.
Participants shared knowledge and experiences on topics as varied as farming mechanization, product traceability, process optimization, and of course postharvest advances for fruit and vegetables.
The topic that aroused most interest was the analysis of the latest developments in developing harvester machines for fruit production:
1) Technological limitations and orchard management.
2) Developing prototypes is slow and carries a high cost.
However, in recent years there has been significant progress in artificial vision technologies that allow for recognizing and locating fruits on trees with a 70-80% success rate. It is still necessary to reduce the waiting time between the detection and extraction of fruit.
Also, it requires the improving the sensitivity of the electronic arms, or other extraction tools, to reduce physical damage and losses from falling. Another important aspect was noted by Dr. Errol Hewett, professor emeritus at the University of Massey, who determined that the success of harvesting machines depended on the use of early varieties, and the adoption of alternative management and pruning systems that facilitate machinery operations in orchards and vineyards.
Dr. Stavros Vougioukas, researcher in the department of agricultural engineering at UC Davis, said it is imperative that research centers change their research strategies in these new technologies.
This change should aim to replace the manufacturing of expensive experimental prototypes, and their validation in the field afterwards, with the use of simulation software to design and computionally validate new machinery, as is the case in the automotive and aviation industries.
In this way not only do you reduce the cost of experimental equipment, which tends to exceed the commercial product many times over, but also the time between design and release to the market.
Finally, even considering those aspects that hinder the early adoption of new technologies in fruit crops, there is optimism among researchers because they have seen great progress in electronic vision, artificial intelligence and robotics.
The addition of machines in the production of fresh fruit will also be driven by the increasing need for farmers to replace all or a part of their workers, due to rising labor costs and a reduction in the availability of agricultural workers.