In recent years, fruit growers in Australia and NZ have been struggling to find fruit pickers to work in orchards.
Such manual labour jobs are popular with Working Holiday Visa travellers as they do not require special skills or a high level of English.
However, with fewer travellers now visiting Australian shores due to the COVID-19 pandemic, orchards are experiencing chronic labour shortages.
Could robotic fruit pickers provide the answer?
In a world first, T&G Global, a New Zealand-based fruit and vegetable producer, is using a robotic harvester for a commercial apple crop at its Hawkes Bay orchards.
The company has partnered with US-based technology partner Abundant Robotics to develop the new technology.
The joint venture is the culmination of four years of working with T&G's parent company BayWa AG, as part of its strategy to expand digitisation across its agribusiness.
The Abundant Robotics technology is being used to pick a range of apple varieties including T&G's proprietary Jazz and Envy, which are destined for supermarket shelves in New Zealand and overseas.
The unmanned fruit picking bot moves through a specially designed trellised orchard sensing and picking apples using a special suction attached to its arms.
T&G Global chief operating officer, Peter Landon-Lane, says the new technology has enabled the company to reach a new milestone in the apple industry.
"Automation enables us to continue to scale to meet increasing global demand for food, in the face of current and future labour market challenges," he says.
High density planting and specific pruning methods have been implemented at T&G's Hawkes Bay orchards to make them suitable for Abundant Robotics' technology.
Canopy innovation and trialling of different ways of achieving automation compatibility has been a feature of orchard expansion initiatives since 2017.
Abundant Robotics chief executive officer, Dan Steere, said the company came from its research-based origins after delivering a proof of concept prototype in 2015 and approached the commercialisation of the technology as a global opportunity from the start.
"With T&G Global we are able to run a year-round development program leveraging work with US apple growers and New Zealand orchards during the complementary northern and southern hemisphere harvesting seasons," Mr Steere said.
"Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself.
"Our relationship with growers and access to real-world conditions on partner orchards through the development and testing process has been key to getting the technology to the point where it is now commercially viable."
Mr Landon-Lane said it will be some years before all T&G orchards are harvested in this way but this first harvest with Abundant Robotics was an exciting step forward.
"Apple-picking is tough physical work and it's seasonal. Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity," he said.
"This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labour."
Source: North QLD Register