An intelligent bin dog system—a self-propelled bin carrying system that could follow fruit pickers through the orchard—is one of several labor-saving devices that scientists at Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems hope to develop.

Dr. Qin Zhang, director of the center, which is based in Prosser, envisions that the electric bin management system would carry an empty bin into the orchard and follow the pickers until the bin was full. It would then transport the full bin to a central collection station. It would be operated remotely by a picker who would signal when the full bin needed to be removed and a new empty bin was needed.

The goal is to improve the efficiency of picking in both cherry and apple orchards by eliminating the need for pickers to walk to the bin and back to empty their picking bags.

Karen Lewis, WSU extension tree fruit specialist, who is also working on the project, said walking from the ladder to the nearest bin and back could account for as much as 20 percent of the total time a worker spends picking, depending on the variety, crop load, and density of bins. The bin dog would likely be most useful in an orchard being color picked where the bins are relatively far apart. The picker would be the master and the bin mover would be the slave, and they would be connected electronically.

The system would also eliminate the need for bins to be moved around by workers driving tractors and trailers, which would be another savings. However, one carrying system would be needed for each bin.

The project, which will receive almost $70,000 in funding from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in the coming year, is in the design phase. The next step is to develop a prototype to test in Washington orchards and figure out how it can work on sloped ground.