New orchard technologies are coming
Tree fruit growers saw a glimpse of what’s soon coming in the way of new orchard technologies during a field day hosted by Washington State University.
Sanjiv Singh, leader of research to develop autonomous orchard vehicles, says the electric cart can be switched to allow a driver, if desired.
Several new technologies for orchards—from driverless platforms and harvest-assist machines to laser tree counters for nurseries to traps that send insect counts to orchardists—are moving from the ‘what if’ to the ‘when’ category. A recent “show and tell” day at Washington State University’s Sunrise Research Orchard near Wenatchee gave growers a view of technologies that are near commercialization.
Sanjiv Singh, part of a research team at Carnegie Mellon that’s working on various projects for the tree fruit industry, calls the autonomous platform the ‘Swiss army knife’ of orchard platforms, because it can perform a variety of orchard tasks, from thinning to spraying to mowing. The driverless, electric-run vehicle looks like a sturdy golf cart, but can navigate down an orchard row, turn at the end and go up and down rows—without the need for a driver. Laser scanners mounted on the front of the vehicle provide a two-dimensional map of the trees to steer the vehicle.
Speeds can be set for slow mode, 0.5 to 1 mile per hour, a speed used in tasks like thinning, or a faster mode, which goes 3 to 5 mph and would be used for chores like mowing. Workers on the platform control the vehicle speed and stopping, as well as movement up or down. By attaching a bin trailer to the vehicle, workers on the ground can perform tasks like color picking while controlling movement and speed of the bin trailer with a remote control.
The Carnegie Mellon research group is also working to develop a voice-controlled autonomous platform and vehicle.
Nursery tree counter
Also near commercialization is a laser-based sensor mounted on the front of an all-terrain vehicle to count trees, said Marcel Bergerman of Carnegie Mellon. The laser tree counter, which Bergerman demonstrated by driving down an orchard row at about five miles per hour, was 100 percent accurate in its count. The row had 123 trees and three wooden posts, counted as 126 by the laser.
Nurseries have been anxious for an accurate, automated way to count and measure the caliper of seedling trees growing in the field, said C & O Nursery’s Gary Snyder while watching the counter demonstration. “If we could know when the trees are still in the ground, what size and number we have, then we can share inventories with the grower sooner.”
Accuracy of the tree counter is about 98 percent, though further work is needed in measuring tree diameter, Bergerman said. “The caliper measurement works well when trees are not staked. But in staked trees, every once in awhile, a stake is added to the diameter of a tree,” he said, adding that caliper measurement is accurate, down to an eighth of an inch, but they need to be able to account for the stakes.
Bergerman envisions that the interface for the laser counting device, which currently is connected to a laptop, would be accessible on a smart phone, like an iPhone or Android, making it user friendly. Though Carnegie Mellon is looking for a partner to commercialize the technology, the current setup has already been used in the real world to provide an accurate tree count as part of an insurance claim in Oregon.
The technology demonstrations are part of a national research project called Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops. Partnering institutions include the universities of Carnegie Mellon, Oregon State, Pennsylvania State, Purdue, Washington State; USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station; and the private companies of Vision Robotics, Toro, DBR Conveyor Concepts, and Trimble. The $12 million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with matching funds from industry and university partners. It’s a collaborative effort involving researchers, engineers, manufacturers, and tree fruit growers from across the nation.
Look for in-depth stories about the apple harvest machine and electronic insect trap in the November issue of Good Fruit Grower.