Apple picking robot tested on Victorian farm

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A Victorian farm has hosted tests of an apple-picking robot which university researchers hope could fix Australia’s agriculture labour shortage.

A Victorian farm has hosted tests of an apple-picking robot which university researchers hope could fix Australia’s agriculture labour shortage.

A team from Monash University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering spent February and March testing the robot at Fankhauser Apples in Drouin, east of Melbourne, which they say can successfully identify, pick and deposit an apple in seven seconds.

"The robot grasps apples with a specially designed, pneumatically powered, soft gripper with four independently actuated fingers and suction system that grasps and extracts apples efficiently, while minimising damage to the fruit and the tree itself," project leader Dr Chao Chen says.

"In addition, the suction system draws the apple from the canopy into the gripper, reducing the need for the gripper to reach into the canopy and potentially damaging its surroundings.

"The gripper can extract more than 85 per cent of all apples from the canopy that were planned for harvesting."


The apple-picking robot was tested at Fankhauser Apples in Drouin, Victoria

During the research, the robot was only operating at half its possible speed and had a median harvest rate of 12.6 seconds per apple.

This reduced to nine seconds per apple in what was described as "streamlined pick-and-drop scenarios" during the trial period.

One challenge the researchers had to overcome was how the robot would firstly detect the apples and then identify any obstacles within its path.

Chen says an advanced algorithm that quickly worked out the safest and best path to each apple was crucial to the robot’s efficiency.

"Our developed vision system can not only positively identify apples in a tree within its range in an outdoors orchard environment by means of deep learning, but also identify and categorise obstacles, such as leaves and branches, to calculate the optimum trajectory for apple extraction," he says.

"We also implemented a ‘path-planning’ algorithm that was able to generate collision-free trajectories for more than 95 per cent of all reachable apples in the canopy.

"It takes just eight seconds to plan the entire trajectory for the robot to grasp and deposit an apple."

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