New Zealand's largest apple grower-exporter T&G Global has begun using a robotic harvester on a commercial apple crop in what it describes as a "world-first".
The development is the culmination of four years of working with U.S.-based technology partner Abundant Robotics, which T&G’s parent company BayWa AG invested in two years ago and which uses vacuum technology to harvest the fruit from the trees.
T&G Global COO Peter Landon-Lane says the company is delighted to have reached this significant milestone in the evolution of the global apple industry and for T&G’s home operations in New Zealand to be at the forefront.
“Automation enables us to continue to scale to meet increasing global demand for food, in the face of current and future labour market challenges. We’ve been actively driving towards this for the past few years, including preparing our orchards to be robot-ready.
“This is in addition to the investment our parent company BayWa AG has made in Abundant Robotics, reflecting confidence in the technology, which has been developed with the apple industry from the outset,” says Landon-Lane.
High-density planting and specific pruning methods have been implemented at T&G’s Hawkes Bay orchards to make them suitable for Abundant Robotics’ technology. Canopy innovation and trialing of different ways of achieving automation compatibility has been a feature of orchard expansion initiatives since 2017.
Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere says the company evolved from its research-based origins after delivering a proof-of-concept prototype in 2015 and approached the commercialization of the technology as a global opportunity from the start.
“With T&G Global we are able to run a year-round development programme leveraging work with US apple growers and New Zealand orchards during the complementary northern and southern hemisphere harvesting seasons," he said.
“Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself.
“Our relationship with growers and access to real-world conditions on partner orchards through the development and testing process has been key to getting the technology to the point where it is now commercially viable."
The Abundant Robotics technology is being used to pick a range of apple varieties including T&G’s proprietary JAZZ and Envy, which are destined for supermarket shelves in New Zealand and overseas.
Landon-Lane says it will be some years before all T&G orchards are harvested in this way, but this first harvest with Abundant Robotics is an exciting step forward.
“Apple-picking is tough physical work and it’s seasonal. Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity," he said.
“This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labour,” says Landon-Lane.