Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Hands-off orchard operation with robotic launch

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Tauranga company brings multipurpose orchard machine to market.
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After a decade and hundreds of hours of development, Tauranga company Robotics Plus has gone commercial with its multipurpose, hybrid autonomous machine for orchard use.

The Prospr machine has evolved from Robotic Plus’s early efforts to develop an autonomous kiwifruit picking machine. 

But developers soon recognised that having a crop-specific machine limited global sales prospects, and moved to develop a multifunctional, platform-type machine with multiple applications across different fruit and orchard types.

Company CEO Steve Saunders said he expects to see 20 machines in commercial use by early next year, with one a week being manufactured on the company’s Tauranga production line. This will increase to two a week in the new year.

“The first machines are already operating on vineyards near Blenheim, with another on the water to Australia, and multiple machines due to head to the United States.”
The machine was showcased at the robotic agricultural event FIRA 2023, in Salinas California.

Saunders said the machine answers a number of challenges facing orchardists around the world, including a shortage of skilled machine operators, the need for more exacting spray application, lowering carbon footprints, and cutting operating costs to maintain profitability.

“We have focused on use and flexibility with a unique modular architecture throughout that means you can allow for different tools for various crops and applications year-round to maximise your return on investment.”
At this stage the machines are configured for spraying in apple orchards and grapevines. A special spray unit developed with Croplands has removed hydraulics systems and replaced them with more exacting electric fans, enabling more precise control of spray applications. 

The modular design applies here also, with fans being able to be added or removed, depending upon crop type and time of year.

The units are powered by a hybrid electric system where an onboard diesel generator works to recharge the unit’s batteries, pushing operating time out for extended periods without requiring refuelling. 

Fuel use is claimed to be 70% less than that of conventional diesel tractors.

Saunders said the machine is designed to be capable of being converted to all-electric should battery or hydrogen fuel cell technology advance in coming years.

“But with an onboard generator you have a machine that does not put the same demands on charging from the grid. And for some of our larger orchard clients with many machines, all-electric would simply not be practical.”

He said the significantly lower fuel consumption already puts operators on a good pathway to a lower carbon footprint.

The machines run through an operating system that enables four to be overseen by one operator, with the electric motor system and zero brakes or hydraulics keeping repair and maintenance costs lower than conventional machines.

Saunders said one of the biggest challenges developing Prospr has been engineering in robust safety systems, ensuring full, consistent oversight of the operating machines at all times, and systems ensuring they are capable of identifying and responding to obstacles.

“Certainly, putting automation in the likes of buildings is a lot easier than into a moving machine.”

Broadacre apple and grape production in the US offers a good scale for a return on the machines’ investment, which can be recouped in under two years with full use. 

Saunders cited Washington state as a key market where apple production is on a huge scale, with the state having over 100,000ha of apples. 

“We have a client whose orchard holdings total more than New Zealand’s total apple area.”
Future applications are likely to include tasks such as leaf plucking in vineyards, weeding, and defoliation in apple orchards.

“A focus is to put tools on the platform that are replacing those repeatable, slow tasks where you may only be travelling at [1.5km/h].”

Given the machines’ ability to gather data across orchards, he can also see the potential to attach assorted analysis arrays to help predict parameters like crop volumes, budding or quality status of fruit within the orchard.

Saunders acknowledged the value of having received US$8 million (about $13m) of investment from Yamaha Motor Company in 2018. That gave the project, and company, a welcome capital injection.

Robotics Plus has also enjoyed success with other automated equipment in the primary sector space.

This includes automated apple grading equipment, and its robotic scaling machine that can scan logging truckloads to assess and measure logs without the operator having to leave their cab.

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