Apples in reach of robotic Eve

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Almost there: Hunter Jay from Ripe Robotics plucked this apple by hand, but his company should soon have a machine that will do automatically.

The day when robots will take over fruit harvesting in Goulburn Valley orchards is moving closer, with engineers working hard to perfect their machines and the supply of seasonal labour getting harder to secure.

Goulburn Valley-based company Ripe Robotics hopes to have a model able to pick 4000 pieces of fruit into a bin this season.

Ripe Robotics chief executive Hunter Jay said they were developing a system that could detect suitable fruit (size, colour and quality), pluck the fruit from the tree and place it in the bin, and move from one tree to another.

“We are in the early commercialisation/late development stage,” Mr Jay said.

Dubbed ‘Eve’, the robot uses a soft suction system to minimise damage to fruit at the tree and is equipped with advanced artificial intelligence and connected to the cloud so progress can be tracked.

“We’ve had demos picking a few dozen pieces, tests with picking a few hundred with different parts of the machine,” Mr Jay said.

“Our goal is now to fill a full bin, no damage to the fruit and good enough for growers to pay for the job.

“Once we get to that milestone, it will be a matter of trying to get it reliable and cheap enough to do it all day.’’

The company is drawing on technology already developed that uses cameras as sensors, and is also creating its own software and hardware to adapt to the machine.

Mr Jay envisages growers will eventually be able to contract his company to carry out the harvest using the robots, which would be capable of working day and night.

And other organisations are in the race too.

Monash University demonstrated its robotic harvester at a Tatura Smart Farm field day recently.

The Monash team hopes to have development of the Monash Apple Retrieval System completed in three years.

Team leader Chao Chen said the project engaged students in the practical application of science.

Dr Chen was about 85 per cent confident their work would result in a harvesting robot.

Ripe Robotics also attended the recent Tatura Smart Farm field day.

Brave new world: A robot arm reaches for an apple at the Tatura Smart Farm field day. The machine was developed by Monash University.
Under development: A robotic harvester, under development by Monash University, reaches for an apple at a field day at the Tatura Smart Farm.