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The short, the medium and the long-term potential of ag-tech

Technology & Data
rob blakey grower

Rob Blakey presented at the Grower R&D Update on November 13.

The idea of an orchard buzzing with flying robotic harvesters may sound like something out of The Jetsons, but delegates at APAL’s November R&D Update were treated to early footage of flying pickers in action during a fascinating session by Stemilt’s R&D Manager, Dr Rob Blakey.

Stemilt’s operation covers over 10,000 acres in central Washington. Their apple harvest starts at the end of July and ends in late October or early November (depending on weather and crop load) and is conducted in the main by guest workers from Mexico. Stemilt’s warehouse has three apple lines and one pear line, packing an impressive 10 million boxes per year.

Stemilt’s challenge

The broader Washington industry is facing a major cost price squeeze. The main concerns is the cost of labour and the return to the grower. Figures from Washington State University estimate that labour costs per acre have risen substantially in the past five years and are an increasing proportion of direct growing costs. Gala is currently the number one variety in Washington but it’s tough to make money. More generally, growers in Washington, says Blakey, needs to get bigger for economies of scale, more efficient, and move into more profitable varieties to beat the squeeze.

Agricultural technology has a big role to play in improving the profitability of orchards, not as the sole answer but as a major part of the solution. Blakey explains that with intelligent production and labour planning, long-term business sustainability is achievable. Stemilt’s goals are simple: they aim to achieve high packs per bin of fruit and bins per acre to make a sustainable net return year after year, and have the right labour and mechanisation management plan to achieve this.

Progression of harvesting technology

Blakey talks about agricultural technology in three stages: available now, medium-term/probable, and long term/long shot. While the long-term goal may one day be to replace human labour on orchards, at present Stemilt is focused on how machines and systems can be used to optimise labour and move away from ladders (known as “human assist”). Blakey comments that at present, “It’s very hard [for ag-tech] to beat a motivated ground picker”.

Blakey provides a high-level overview of how orchard technology is expected to evolve from today’s highly-manual processes:

  1. Manual: Ladder- and ground-based workers
  2. Ground assist: Remove walking, and can work at night
  3. Platform: Remove ladders, and can work at night
  4. Harvest assist: Remove ladders and bags, and can work at night
  5. Ground robot: Remove elevated workers, and can work 24/7
  6. Flying robot: Remove big ground robot, and can work 24/7.

Available now:

Ground assist:

The Bandit Scout is a harvest-assist machine that is designed to make the ground picking process more efficient and productive byfollowing pickers around the orchard, reducing the steps pickers need to take to empty picking bags thereby enabling them to spend more time picking.

The Bandit Xpress is a self-propelled harvest assist and platform machine that eliminates the need for ladders. Its scissor-lift feature raises and lowers bins to the ground and the multiple levels enables picking at different heights. Estimates are that getting rid of ladders increases efficiency by 40%. Designed to operate day and night, Stemilt used dozens of Bandit Xpress platforms to complete harvest before a forecasted cold snap ruined their fruit.

Stemilt is using aerial imagery in some of their orchards to guide work and improve the uniformity of their orchards. Parameters used are NDVI (vegetative index), water stress, thermal (canopy temperature), and chlorophyll classification. Potential benefits may also include: overhead cooling quality checks, identifying blocked sprinklers, troubleshooting high or low vigour areas, and matching fruit quality and yield to overhead imagery.

Medium-term or probable

Blakey is exploring some of the various in-row imagery providers in the market. These providers claim that they can assist with fruit counting, yield mapping, growth curves, water stress, fruit colour, and monitoring pests and disease. In-row imaging may increase the accuracy of crop estimates, help guide crop load management, aid in management decision to improve the uniformity of the orchard, and even storage and sales plan.

He also sees promise in the Bandit Cyclone, a vacuum machine fitted to the Bandit Xpress designed to improve efficiency and alleviate worker fatigue by removing the picking bag from the picking process. With the adoption of new technology there are often some process changes; for this technology Blakey noted that to avoid bruising, the fruit has to be fed into the vacuum one-by-one, which requires worker retraining.

Long-term and long-shot tech

Blakey saved the most futuristic part of his presentation until last, when he played footage of an autonomous ground-based robotic harvester that sucked fruit off the tree with a vacuum tube, another robotic harvester that used multiple ‘claws’ and a tethered flying robotic harvester which delicately picked apples with a claw-like appendage, which could one day replace elevated human pickers.

Finally, Blakey explored the potential benefits of autonomous precision crop load management and warehousing of the future. He talked of manufacturers successfully integrating a vision system, machinery to thin flowers and fruitlets, and autonomous driving technology in an in-row imagery-type solution. To optimize the machine’s operation, Blakey notes that growers will need the horticultural models to inform the system, but if successful could be a game-changer in terms of orchard uniformity. Autonomous precision crop load management is at least five years away from its first commercial adoption in the US looking at current projects.

Warehousing in orchards will follow the wider trend of manufacturers’ warehouses everywhere: more decision aid tools to improve QC labor efficiency and increased mechanisation as labour becomes more expensive and workers are harder to find. These developments will lead to consolidation as the capital required for these improvements is a multi-million-dollar investment.

Blakey’s final advice to delegates is “Don’t just collect cool imagery and tools”. Think about how technology can be used to improve your current labour efficiency and prepare your orchard for the future by thinking about orchard uniformity. “There’s a lot of ag-tech available, so get involved, let companies trial their solutions in your orchards, but don’t commit too soon but then execute your plans”.

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