Indeed, automation is the holy grail and the race is on. Abundant Robotics of California, backed by investment money from GV, formerly Google Ventures, is still testing a vacuum picker, while FF Robotics of Israel is working on a hand-style gripper.
WSU researchers don’t intend to replace those with shake-and-catch. There’s room for more than one method, Karkee said.
He envisions the shake-and-catch concept handling mass harvests with certain varieties, while the vacuum and gripper models may be more precise for higher-value varieties that don’t fall as easily, such as Honeycrisp.
“In my opinion, they will exist together,” he said.
In fact, shake-and-catch might make a perfect fit for cider apples.
In 2016, the WSU team ran a trial in a block of Harry Master Jersey, a cider specific variety. It removed apples at roughly the same rate as Jazz. The researchers did not measure the catch rate or marketability rate because the trees lacked the lateral architecture needed.
Tieton Cider Works in Tieton, Washington, still picks apples by hand, though in other parts of the world, growers shake the trees by the trunk, let the apples fall to the ground and then scoop them up. That works if you process them right away, said General Manager Marcus Robert.
Cider apples can tolerate some bruising; they will be pressed anyway. Too much bruising, however, and they won’t store as long, forcing the grower to process them quickly. That’s not always possible, Robert said.
Shake-and-catch might give an in-between option, he said. “It’s about getting those apples off the tree with the lowest inputs.”