The harvesting and sorting system is nearing commercial release.
The harvester has four suction tubes for each worker to use. Fruit travels up the tube to an electronic scanner on the platform. Packable fruit and culls go into separate bins.
After testing prototypes of their apple-harvesting system in Washington State in 2009, Picker Technologies and Oxbo are fine-tuning the technology. They plan to field test the next-generation harvester this spring with the hope of bringing it to market soon.
Picker Technologies LLC of Mercer Island, Washington, and Oxbo International Corporation of Clear Lake, Wisconsin, formed a partnership two years ago to develop and commercialize fruit harvesting, scanning, and sorting technologies, beginning with apples.
The apple harvester is designed to improve harvest efficiency by eliminating the need for ladders. Pickers place apples into vacuum tubes that transport the fruit up to the machine's platform, where it is scanned. Packable fruit and culls are sorted into separate bins so that only the good fruit goes to the warehouse. The harvester carries three bins concurrently: a bin for good apples, one for culls, and an empty replacement bin.
Four workers are needed with each harvester. A driver is not needed, as one of the pickers can operate the system after limited training. The harvester is designed to handle 100 apples per minute per worker. No injuries to workers were reported during the 2009 harvest. Workers who use the harvester are less tired and can work longer than when they use bags and ladders.
In 2009, the system was field tested with Red Delicious, Gala, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Braeburn, and Pink Lady apples at an orchard of Stemilt Growers, Inc., near Pasco, Washington. It was used in vertical axis, slender spindle, and V-trellis systems and worked successfully on a nine-degree hill. The system works most efficiently with fruiting walls, where there are no gaps between the trees.
Tony Stolz, product manager with Oxbo, told growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting that as a result of the tests, the company has been making some changes to reduce bruising, improve sorting accuracy, reduce the downtime when full bins need to be replaced with empty ones, and to allow the pickers to be more mobile. The company is also studying the economics and potential return on investment for the grower. The next generation machine will be able to handle a greater size range of applesfrom 2.25 inches to 4.5 inches in diameter.
According to information from Picker Technologies, the scanning/sorting system was able, when optimally calibrated, to identify defects such as limb rub, russet, bitter pit, bird pecks, bruises, hail damage, punctures, lenticel breakdown, decay, and codling moth stings with 85 percent accuracy.
When fruit was distributed evenly in the orchard, the onboard dry bin filler system caused little or no bruising, Picker Technologies reports. However, more than 10 percent bruising could occur when the flow of fruit into the bins was uneven. A redesign of the picking platforms to allow greater mobility of pickers should reduce or eliminate that problem.
A cull analysis of 25 bins of Fuji apples that were picked and transported to a packing house, showed that 3.9 percent of the fruit had out-of-grade bruising. Some of the bruising could have been caused during shipping or unloading at the packing house.
Similar machines were tested last season on oranges and cling peaches in California. Picker Technologies has applied for more than ten patents in 21 countries.