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Faculty at Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems plan to focus the bulk of their efforts in the future on the pursuit of a fully automated apple harvesting system. And they’re compiling a roadmap to guide their efforts and to help secure funding for the research.

Forecasts of large tree fruit crops in the Pacific Northwest this year have got growers wondering how they’ll harvest them. This season could see record cherry, apple, and pear crops. Increased production coincides with a smaller number of migrant workers entering the country from Mexico, and there is no immediate prospect of federal ­legislation that would help increase the labor supply.

At least two machines are under development in the United States that would relieve pickers from the task of climbing up and down ladders to pick fruit and then empty the contents of their picking bags into bins. This could increase worker productivity as well as expand the potential labor pool to the less physically able.

But scientists say the increase in productivity from such labor-assist technologies is modest in relation to the potentially huge shortage of workers and that such machines are just a stepping stone to the fully automated systems that the industry needs.

Karen Lewis, WSU extension tree fruit specialist and an associate director at CPAAS, said that it was during a trip to the World Ag Expo in California earlier this year that a group of industry representatives and scientists realized that research efforts in automation could be more effective if the center devoted 60 to 70 percent of its efforts on solving the one problem—moving from human-assisted technology towards fully mechanized harvest. CPAAS has an interdisciplinary team with horticulturists, engineers, computer scientists, and extension specialists who are working to develop technical solutions for tree fruit production.

Lewis said this shift in focus will require a major shift in the industry towards simple orchard systems that will be compatible with automated harvest. The formal system used at Auvil Fruit Company’s ranch at Vantage, where each limb of the tree is trained along a trellis wire, is the one where successful automation is likely to come the quickest. Success there should help get the industry excited to see the possibility, she said.

Similar systems are now being adopted by other major grower-packers in Washington, she noted. “Most new acreage being planted in the Columbia Basin is a formal system. It’s not so random any more, and formal is what you need for automation.”

However, the other 90 percent of the acreage in the state would still need to be ­converted. Even at 5 percent per year, that would take 20 years.

Roadmap

Dr. Qin Zhang, director of CPAAS, said the university’s role will be to create knowledge and core technologies, and deliver that knowledge to manufacturers who can deliver the product to the users. He said robotic harvesting is probably ten years away from being commercially available, but the university needs to be forward looking and get the ball rolling. The roadmap for mechanical harvesting of apples, which will complement the existing Tree Fruit Technology Roadmap, should be completed in time to present to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission for funding at its December meeting, Zhang said.

Following its Technology Research Review this spring, the Research Commission approved funding for a new project at CPAAS to develop an automated apple harvesting system with the potential to improve harvest efficiency and reduce labor needs.

Graduate student Mark DeKleine, who is working with professor Dr. Manoj Karkee on the project, told the commission that the aim is to develop a system to harvest undamaged fruit for the fresh market using as many off-the-shelf components as possible.

The Research Commission is providing almost $54,000 in funding for the first year.

Several years ago, the commission gave funding to the California company Vision Robotics to work towards robotic harvesting. Initial efforts focused on developing a machine vision system to locate the fruit, which was seen as a necessary precursor to a harvesting system.

Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, said the commission is willing to consider investing in any kind of technology that offers potential impact, whether long- or short-term.

“I think it’s a mistake to identify or to qualify engineering solutions as more expensive. If you look at what we spent on codling moth over the past ten years, you would have to say that’s an incredibly expensive project.

“I do feel that the commission and its committees are taking a balanced approach and looking for solutions that offer near-term impact and those we need to invest in now or we won’t see the progress that’s necessary in the next five or ten years.”