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Robotic hands gently snatch kiwifruit future

By Tarek Bazley

It looks like something Nasa would place on the Martian surface, but in the coming years a new-developed robotic rover could become the workhorse of New Zealand's fruit industry.

It has been developed to help pick some of the more than 3 billion kiwifruit harvested in New Zealand each year.

Labour shortages and arrival of new varieties have made getting the fruit off the vine at the right time a huge challenge for growers. 

Now a team of scientists and engineers working with Waikato and Auckland universities have developed a new robotic picking machine, designed to move along beneath the vines, gently taking the fruit as it goes.

An array of cameras are at the heart of the machine, which uses a series of learning algorithms to map the canopy above in three dimensions.

"We have trained the system to detect what a kiwifruit is," says Dr Henry Williams from the University of Auckland.

"We can do a bit of trigonometry and stereo calculations to get coordinates. We feed that through to the arm and say can you please go here."

With that data, the machine's robotic arms then moves to pick the fruit. Trials have shown if it is calibrated correctly it can be more gentle than human pickers.

"The robot was more consistent in its handling and also gentler," says Alistair Scarfe, the CTO of Robotics Plus, the company behind the machine.

He says robotic's handling of the fruit gives it an important advantage as it can result in consistently higher quality of fruit, which fetch higher prices at market.

The developers of the machine say it will be ready to be used for picking within the next three years and they are now working on adapting it for pruning and other orchard tasks.

"Having a robotic vehicle that can navigate around an orchard by itself and do a multitude of tasks is a pretty exciting place to be," says Scarfe.

A prototype of the machine is on display at the National Agricultural Fieldays running until Saturday near Hamilton.

- NZ Herald

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