Apple-Picking Robot Stems From Labor Shortage

Among all the job-related problems wrought by the pandemic, here is another one that comes as the result of people generally staying home: there are hardly any backpackers to do traditional transient backpacker jobs like picking apples. Researchers at Monash University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace engineering found a way to fill in the gap by building a pneumatic robot arm that can harvest an apple every seven seconds at top speed.

A suite of cameras and algorithms look for fruit amongst the foliage and carefully remove it by gripping it gently and twisting, much like a human would. In order to do this, the robot must consider the shape of the fruit, the way it’s hanging, and where to separate it from the tree while keeping damage to a minimum. A suction system helps pull the apple into the soft, four-fingered grip and then the arm twists and turns to deposit the apple into the bin.

There are a lot of upsides to this robot, including the fact that it works in any lighting and weather conditions and can ID an apple in less than 200 milliseconds. The only problem is that this operation results in the occasional missing stem — a cosmetic problem that sounds nit-picky, but would definitely prevent some stores from buying the fruit. Well, that, and there only seems to be one of these robots so far.

There are two videos after the break — a short one that gives you the gist, and a much longer one that offers a view of the suction cup, which emerges from the middle of the fingers like a xenomorph’s little mouth.

Some readers may be wondering why apples are still picked individually when shaking harvesters exists. “Shake-and-catch” tends to bruise apples, making them undesirable for produce sellers, however, apples destined for juicing have no issue with being handled roughly by the harvesters as shown in this fascinating harvest video. Robot grippers are gentle and we’ve seen all shapes and sizes that are suited to a particular need. When the needs are more general, rollers or squishy spheres might be the answer.

Via Fresh Plaza

35 thoughts on “Apple-Picking Robot Stems From Labor Shortage

    1. They are ip54, they can handle dust and splashing from all directions. What other weather is there that the robot would see ? They wouldn’t keep it out in lightening, but there is no IP rating for that

  1. The actual reason that farmers are suffering from labour shortages is because they pay shit wages that can’t sustain people coming from out of town to pick fruit (and sometimes do despicable acts to backpackers. Look it up if you don’t believe me). Some farmers have imported fruit pickers from Papua New Guinea and are paying them basically slaves wages. (again, look it up)

    It’s getting too expensive in Australia to pack up, got out fruit picking for minimum wage for a couple of months only at a time while having to pay for accommodation to stay in some country town experiencing a population boom it’s resources can’t handle because people are getting forced out of the main city centres because it is too expensive to live where you were born and raised because developers are buying land and building rubbish houses while the government keeps increasing immigration to keep the whole ponzi scheme going.

    1. …all while local zoning regulations, state and federal rules, make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to grow and sell your own produce and livestock, from your apartment or townhouse. Not talking pig farms here, hackaday has plenty of farming hacks to transform your city flat into a cornucopia. I swear, the only thing keeping multinational agri-corps above water, are government mandates, favorable rules, and IP!

    2. Sadly this is indeed the case. Unemployed australians do give fruit picking a solid go (with the full knowledge it is hard work) but farmers have gone out of their way to discourage them such as asking a 100-question questionnaire to pick berries, as this article attests:
      Also some farms have deals with accommodation places and a considerable percentage of their earnings is take by them. I can’t find the news article link atm but one able-bodied australian worker was rejected when he told them he had his own accommodation, and showed he was knowledgeable about his employment rights.

  2. It seems very ineffcient… For example, if there was a textile chute located right under the arm, all it had to do was to get apples one by one and just drop them, so they would smoothly slide down to a container.

    1. Hm, if I was to design something like this, I’d start with with a stock robot arm, too, and worry about optimizing the apple disposal later; I think it would have made for a demo just as good if the thing plucked the apple, retracted 10cm and just dropped it on the floor.

      What worries me much more at this stage is the seeming inefficiency at picking the closest apple, and that the paths of the gripper are not only unoptimized – they seem to be really really bad.

  3. Last time I purchased one of those arms it was £18k with educational discount, but did include a custom manipulator. They’ve built lots of them, so perhaps it’s come down a bit.

    They might benefit from going a little more old school on the gripper – a tin can with a slit, mounted on the end of a long stick works really well. It does require lining the slit up with the twig/stem, then twisting to snap/cut it. Probably possible to improve upon given a budget greater than re-purposing an empty tin of corn.

  4. Yup. Supply and demand. Every. Single. Time.

    Here we have been unable to secure the services of the usual Island Nation crew who normally hop over to do this unpleasant work for shit wages.

    It turns out that even though there are many underemployed locals nobody actually wants to do it for minimum wage. Pay more and they might want to. However, this might lead to higher prices in the shops. Or, more likely, less profit. What to do, what to do?

    1. From the article itself.

      Some readers may be wondering why apples are still picked individually when shaking harvesters exists. “Shake-and-catch” tends to bruise apples, making them undesirable for produce sellers

  5. I’m a bit worried about the hose running alongside the robot. I’ve spent a bit of time working with exactly that model and you don’t get to chose how each individual joint operates. You pick a position for the tool and the rest is worked out for you. It can sometime make some unusual movements to get to where it wants to be, and could tear the hose.

  6. Shit wages? Most of my early years, government wasn’t passing out ‘free’ wages to anyone, and everyone. Any paycheck, was a good paycheck, and kept food on the table, clothes on your back, until you could find a more stable income. I pick other fruits, and the wages, were by the pound. Your pay was based on how productive, and how many hours you worked. You aren’t going to get rich at it, but it still pays better than sitting around bitching about the economy.

    Some people are too ‘proud’ (lazy) to work, to survive. Others are too proud to ‘beg’ (government assistance) to survive. A lot of people seem to believe that working (in general), for minimum wage, is an insult, beneath their ‘worth’. Kind of funny, that they are the ones pushing to raise the minimum wage. The work, will still be the same crappy jobs, and the wages still won’t buy any more, as cost of living will increase. The people who refuse to work for minimum wage, will still refuse to work for minimum wage, as they still view it as something poor people do, not them.

    Importing workers from other countries, just increases the population, and reduces the money going back into the local economy. Many stay, after the seasonal work, and take advantage of the ‘free stuff’. Half their wages were sent back to their families, in their home country, so they could join up, later. ‘Free stuff’ costs money, which comes as higher taxes, which also tends to raise prices, and keep wages low, across the board.

    Machines can, and probably will do a lot of the manual labor, but it’s expensive, and doesn’t put money back into the local economy. More people will be living off ‘free stuff’ from the government. What’s really needed, is to go back to surviving is work, one way or another. Free stuff, and begging, being no different. Should be easier, and pay better, to take any job you can find, rather than simply filling out a few forms, and be set for months, a lifetime.

    Not sure how well machines will do at replacing humans on farms. Most, will be fine, for produce going to processing plants, which seems to be trendy. Most people go for convenient, pre-packaged foods, rather than fresh, prepare themselves. Even restaurant foods, are prepared, they don’t have to be perfect in appearance, in the raw form. The stem, on many things, are left on, as they increase the shelf life, after being ‘picked’. Remove the stem, and the fruit is going to ripen and rot, rapidly, days, not weeks. Doesn’t matter for processing plants, since they don’t let anything sit very long, and remove most of the ‘bad’ parts, which can be used for other products… Restaurants, can still make use of the less visually appealing. The average household, usually throw out, the less desirable parts, or the whole fruit or vegetable.

  7. Automating harvesting projects have been going on in my state, Washington State, for at least 10 years. For apple orchards, they have both claw and vacuum/pneumatic machines with multiple gantries and “pickers“ overlapped to maximize harvest rate. Target ranges for apples for example is 80 to 85% of the tree. Goals are no damage to tree or apple, speed and of course cost. My area, eastern state”, has a HUGE population of “farm workers“ that will eventually be displaced by automation.

  8. Sadly the programing for motion seems to be based on ballet not efficiency. All the way up and over instead of just down and drop. The first arm should be long and largely parallel to the rows instead of too many short arms and joints. The length enables rapid positioning in the x and y, the shorter extension the detail location. More zip ties!

  9. In my experience you need two ‘hands’ or preferably three, when picking apples.

    One to twist the apple you’re picking, and the other(s) to catch the ones next to it that inevitably fall off during the twist.

    Otherwise 40% of the crop falls on the ground, and if it’s high up, is spoiled.

  10. Wages are low because you don’t pay much for your apple, and you rather go to McDonald’s.

    This is the most inefficient way of picking apples.
    What about a shaker arm like for cherries.
    Or growing them in a defined metal frame.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.