This prototype of a self-propelled apple picking system (pictured from the front) has four tubes at the rear that transport apples from the picker up to a scanner that sorts the culls from the packable fruit. This photograph was supplied by Oxbo. Good Fru

This prototype of a self-propelled apple picking system (pictured from the front) has four tubes at the rear that transport apples from the picker up to a scanner that sorts the culls from the packable fruit. This photograph was supplied by Oxbo. Good Fru

Only 30 percent of an apple picker’s time is actually spent picking the fruit. The rest of the time, the worker is climbing up and down the ladder, moving the ladder, or walking back and forth to dump the fruit into the bin.

So to orchard and vineyard owners Vince Bryan, Jr., and Vince Bryan III, it seemed obvious that in order to increase labor efficiency and reduce labor costs, there needed to be some way to eliminate the nonproductive parts of the picking job.

"The question was, how do you get the fruit from the tree to the bin?" the younger Bryan said. "And no one’s got a solution for doing this that doesn’t slow you down or damage the fruit. That was the conundrum."

The Bryan family owns Cave B Winery at George, Washington, along with 55 acres of orchard and 120 acres of vineyard.

A couple of years ago, Vince Bryan, Jr., who has been a neurosurgeon and entrepreneur in various fields besides a fruit grower, came up with the idea of using tubes to transport the fruit between the tree and the bin. Pickers would place the apples one by one into tubes that would gently carry the fruit up to a self-propelled harvesting system that would travel up and down the rows with the pickers.

Last year, the Bryans formed a company called Picker Technologies to pursue the idea. Company principals include Alex Kunzler, an engineer who had worked with Bryan, Jr., to develop an artificial cervical spinal disc, and Jeff Cleveringa, Cave B’s orchard and vineyard manager. The younger Bryan, a lawyer, handles the business and intellectual property aspects.

The company built a test system and began looking for joint venture partners to make it a reality.

Super efficient

The idea is not to replace the picker, Vince Bryan III stressed. Other companies are working to develop robotic picking machines, but he felt that perfecting a machine that could pick as well and as fast as a human would be a long-term project. He needed an immediate solution. "We want to take the existing pickers and make them super efficient," he said.

In the spring of 2008, Picker Technologies teamed up with the agricultural equipment manufacturer Oxbo, which is based in Wisconsin. Over the next few months, Oxbo developed the chassis for the harvesting system while Picker Technologies developed the new technology that fit onto it. The chassis is on a track, rather than wheels, which spreads the weight on the ground and makes it easier to turn at the ends of rows.

Bryan said the engineers tried to keep the machine as simple as possible so that it would be affordable for growers. He expects that the system will be adapted for harvesting other types of crops in the future, increasing the potential market.

Mike Miller, director of international market development for Oxbo, said their goal is to develop a practical solution to meet a tremendous need. Technologies to assist workers—such as platforms for pruning and thinning—already exist, but harvest is still being done the same way it’s always been done, using ladders.

While designing the picking system, the partners sought feedback from a "growers council" made up of key tree fruit industry people.

"We know the expectations of the producers, and we’re going to meet or exceed those expectations," Miller said. "A lot of innovation in the ag industry is a solution looking for a market. We’ve taken our potential customers’ needs and tried to answer them with this."

Game changer

Miller said the joint venture partners are excited by the progress they have made in such a short time and are working to test and commercialize the system as quickly as possible. "We’re on an aggressive schedule to introduce it to the marketplace. This thing is a game changer. It’s going to make a significant impact on your operation."

By this fall, the partners had a prototype ready to test at Cave B’s orchards. It accommodates four pickers—two working from the ground and two elevated on a platform to eliminate the need for ladders. It has a fruit transport tube for each of the pickers, to eliminate picking bags also. The ends of the tubes will be fastened to the workers, perhaps by a belt, to leave their hands free.

Bryan expects that the quality of fruit picked with this system will be higher and more consistent than conventionally picked fruit. Apples will not be bumped as workers climb up and down ladders.

Fruit from each tube is transported into a separate lane of a singulator, so that fruit picked by each person can be tracked. The fruit then moves through a computerized scanner that identifies culls (based on color and surface blemishes) and directs them into a separate bin so that they can go directly to the processor rather than to the packing house. Bryan said the scanner could also analyze the fruit by size if necessary. A specially designed dry bin filler ensures that the good fruit is handled gently and not bruised as it goes into the bin.

New labor pool

The system can accommodate three standard apple bins at a time—one for packable fruit, one for culls, and an empty bin that is ready to shift into place when the others are full. Empty bins are loaded on the front of the machine and full bins are deposited at back, ready to be picked up by a regular bin trailer. The system, which has a 46-horsepower engine, moves autonomously up and down rows, though pickers can make adjustments or stop it at the press of a button.

Harvest work should be less physically demanding for pickers when they no longer have to climb ladders while carrying heavy bags of fruit, Bryan noted. This should open up a new labor pool, while at the same time reducing the need for seasonal labor because of the increased efficiency.

The development team studied the various orchard configurations in the tree fruit industry so that the harvesting system would be adaptable to current and future growing systems. It is 7.5 feet wide and would be ideal in a fruit wall planting with 10-foot alleys where the fruit is within easy reach of the pickers, though it can be used in wider spacings.

"The more pedestrian friendly the orchard, the more efficiency will be gained by this machine," Cleveringa said. "It’s very exciting. It’s going to change the tree fruit industry going forward."