Apple picking robots headed for the farm

Apple picking robots headed for the farm
Publication date: 8/11/2016

Over two centuries, little has changed in the way apples are harvested; by and large, it is still a manual process. But now, SRI Ventures, a kind of startup incubator within the Menlo Park research and development firm SRI International, is investing in and spinning out a startup called Abundant Robotics Inc. to automate apple harvesting with agricultural robots currently in development.

The robots, as yet unnamed, were designed to be strong and fast enough to remove one fruit per second from a tree, but gentle enough not to damage trees or the fruit, according to Abundant Robotics’ CEO and co-founder Dan Steere.

They employ computer vision to recognize apples on the branch that are ready for harvesting, and a kind of vacuum to remove the apples, Steere said.

For power, the robots are plugged into the small tractors already used pervasively in fruit farming.

Steere co-founded Abundant Robotics about a year ago, he says, with CTO Curt Salisbury and Senior Software Architect Michael Eriksen recognizing a massive market opportunity in agriculture.

The team had previously worked on research funded by SRI and additional, non-dilutive grants from the Washington Tree Fruit commission to bring automation to the field.

Farmers typically produce more than 9 billion pounds of apples domestically, exporting 2.3 billion pounds of them in 2014-2015, according to the USDA. And international consumption of them has been growing.

According to SRI Ventures President, Manish Kothari, it had not been possible to automate the task of apple picking before recent breakthroughs in computer vision and image processing were made.

He said, “You direct this robot to go someplace, see and pick an apple, and go again. It’s a very non-trivial engineering challenge. To detect apples very precisely you have to see down at the millimeter level in real time. That requires software, and on the hardware side, chips that allow you to do real time image processing on the fly.”

Following its spin out from SRI Ventures, Abundant Robotics will aim to have its autonomous, robotic apple pickers in production and at work in orchards within 2 years, and grow its 8-person team currently based at SRI in Menlo Park, Calif.

The company has so far conducted field trials with orchards in Washington state, and overseas in Australia. It plans to engage in more of these prior to commercialization of its robots, Steere said.


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