Sunday, July 3, 2022

Robots offer a tireless staffing option

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The prospect of autonomous robotic tractors has long been a lure for growers and farmers, often pushed beyond the bounds of reality by cost and existing technology. But a Blenheim company has been quietly building a fleet of automated machines that are proving their worth with one of the region’s largest winegrowers.

The Smart Machine company founding team, from left, Nicholas Gledhill, Walter Langlois and Andrew Kersley.

The prospect of autonomous robotic tractors has long been a lure for growers and farmers, often pushed beyond the bounds of reality by cost and existing technology. But a Blenheim company has been quietly building a fleet of automated machines that are proving their worth with one of the region’s largest winegrowers. Richard Rennie reports.

For any innovative agritech company, New Zealand’s small market size demands founders have an eye out from the start on their tech’s applicability in larger global markets. For the founders of the Oxin automated viticulture tractor, Marlborough has proven an appealing place to start, prior to making that international leap.

“We have been fortunate to have an excellent industry partner right from the start in Pernod, one of the largest grape growers in the region, but also one that has very strong international connections,” Smart Machine director Andrew Kersley said.

Blenheim’s unique concentration of 35,000ha of vineyards, grown primarily by only a few large industry players, makes the company’s ability to showcase the technology, and get it dispersed, a simpler task.

The low-emissions driverless tractor is capable of performing up to three tasks at once in an orchard, often involving mulching, trimming and leaf defoliation, all time critical tasks that have to be completed about the same time.

“Growers are facing real pressure points here for jobs that can’t be put off. Everyone we speak to in the industry is really struggling to complete these jobs and covid has made things only worse,” he said.

Four machines have spent the last 12 months in the productive testing phase, with five more machines almost finished being built and another 10 scheduled for next year.

The concept of automated tractors, particularly for row-orientated orchard work is not new, but development can be dogged by the heavy lift of early-stage development costs.

But Kersley said he believed the company’s relatively rapid advance had been aided by having a good commercial partner on board from the start, and $620,000 of grant input from the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund through the Ministry for Primary Industries.

This funding is being directed to making the machines also suitable for trellised apple orchard use, with the modern “2D” tree design well-suited to mechanised applications.

Along with grapes, the apple sector has undergone significant growth in the past decade, with covid crushing available overseas workers sources and higher labour costs prompting closer examination of robotic options.

With the prospect of unpicked apple crops left hanging on trees this season due to a labour shortage, a picking capability may appear to be an obvious option to equip the machines with.

But Kersley said the developers have been careful to choose their battles in developing machine applications, with other tasks the machine’s focus.

“Grapes in NZ are already largely machine harvested, while picking apples efficiently robotically and getting them off the tree with minimal damage, that still remains a real challenge,” he said.

He said there is a cautionary tale in picking your tech battle.

The United States company Abundant Robotics, which folded late last year after its robotic picker had only made its debut in NZ with T&G for the 2019 harvest.

But the application of multiple machines capable of being run by one operator is also destined to redefine how orchard operators allocate their staff in the future.

“One operator can oversee five machines, rather than being confined to only one machine themselves, they can roam the entire operation,” he said.

In a tight staffing environment and ever-growing crop volumes, Kersley believes the use of automated machines offers the industry the ability to appeal to a wider job market, particularly in a younger demographic drawn to high-tech, remote-operated equipment.

The company is aiming to develop a zero-emissions robotic machine, but the power-hungry nature of the tasks they undertake necessitates the use of a 100hp diesel engine at present. A diesel-electric hybrid has been developed and an electric drive unit.

He said autonomous drive technology has now developed to the point the team did not have to reinvent it. Instead, they have focused on ensuring the machines can perform their tasks at a consistent level, amid the relatively tight tolerances of orchard rows.

Ultimately the company aims to offer the machines through a variety of ownership options, whether through contactors having a fleet of them, joint orchard ownership or lease options.

“For us the goal is to help growers reduce mechanised fleet sizes and their reliance upon labour, while improving productivity, safety and sustainability,” he said.

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