As an apple fan (the delicious fruit, not the horrible-tasting technology company), I take it for granted that apples will be available to me at affordable prices whenever and wherever I want them. This is because I’m a clueless consumer, who had no idea that in 2012, 4.2 million apples were picked in the United States. By hand.
Apple picking is a task that seems like it should be easy to automate: The environment is semistructured, and you’re dealing with objects that are nearly homogenous. At the same time, though, those nearly homogenous objects are often occluded by leaves and branches, and grasping them quickly and delicately enough to compete with humans workers isn’t easy. Robot vision and manipulation have recently advanced just enough to start making autonomous apple harvesting a commercial success, and there are few companies (including FFRobotics) already working in the space.
Last week, SRI International announced a new Silicon Valley spin-off company, Abundant Robotics, which is trying to automate orchard harvests with robotics. From what we can tell, they’re using a sort of horizontally mounted delta robot with a vacuum attachment for gentle high-speed fruit picking, resulting in the cleanest, shiniest apples you’ve ever experienced.
Here’s just about everything useful from the press release:
SRI International today announced the spin-out and launch of Abundant Robotics, an agriculture technology company focused on helping make nutritious foods such as apples and other tree fruits more accessible. Abundant will commercialize and build on several years of successful research initiatives in agricultural robotics at SRI.
“While orchard yields have significantly improved over the last two decades, labor productivity has not,” said Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics. “Our goal is to deliver robotic systems to ease the hardest jobs in agriculture. The first automated apple harvesting system that doesn’t bruise or damage the produce will be a huge breakthrough in an industry that has been dependent on the challenges of seasonal labor.”
Abundant Robotics’ initial prototype is designed with technology from SRI to enable automation of apple harvesting. Future development may address other produce and steps in the production process.
Abundant Robotics, based in Menlo Park, Calif., didn’t have much to add on this—since they’re not announcing a product (just the fact that they exist), they weren’t willing to provide anything in the way of technical information. We did manage to find this soundless video of a video which says it’s from a presentation that Abundant Robotics gave to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission back in February:
It’s a shame that there’s no sound, because I bet that the noise that this thing makes every time it sucks down an apple is supremely satisfying. I’m imagining a sort of thwwwwpplrglp. Abundant did confirm to us that the robot in the video is theirs: It’s “an early prototype picking apples in Central Washington in the fall of 2015,” we were told.
Besides the sheer entertainment value, the vacuum picking technique (an approach being used by other robotics groups) looks like it might be faster in operation and easier to implement than a traditional gripper. Since it only exerts pressure when its, er, orifice (?) is mostly sealed, it can pluck apples out of trees while leaves remain untouched, and as long as it gets close enough, it looks like the apples essentially pick themselves.
The tricky parts are going to be consistently “seeing” apples that may be (I would guess) almost entirely hidden behind leaves and branches, and then managing to reach those apples with a very bulky picking system. Making it reliable and cost-effective will be another challenge, although the potential market is certainly significant. Of course, all we really have to go on right now is a blurry video of a prototype that’s almost a year old and our usual wild speculation, but our guess is that we’ll be finding out more within the year.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.