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Much of the research in orchard innovation involves automation and robotics, but not every orchard can accommodate technology like mechanized harvesters and mechanical thinners. That’s why a Washington State University engineer is also looking for technology that could augment hand labor.

Dr. Qin Zhang, a biological systems engineer for WSU, is developing hand-held devices to assist workers with thinning. He is looking for tools that workers could use selectively to thin cherries, speeding up the time-consuming and expensive task. He envisions something as simple as a cordless power drill equipped with a special thinning attachment that could be used to make hand thinning faster and more efficient.

Project cooperator Karen Lewis, WSU Extension educator, explained that scientists are taking a two-pronged approach to technological advancementsdeveloping technology that works nonselectively in an automated fashion as well as technology that works selectively by using the human brain to make decisions.

She believes that in the long term, orchards will need to be designed on narrow, planar systems to take advantage of orchard efficiencies, but not all orchards are there yet.

Zhang’s research, the first of a three-year project, could help bridge the gap until orchards are converted to more planar systems, like V trellis or vertical systems. The project is funded by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.