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A robot apple-picker is now harvesting fruit in New Zealand orchards

The system has been in development for two years, and will work alongside human laborers to pick fruit 24 hours a day.

The news: The robotic system started harvesting apples in orchards in New Zealand earlier this month. One of New Zealand’s largest food producers, T&G Global, has been working with US startup Abundant Robotics to incorporate its technology into its operations.

The impetus was a growing lack of seasonal laborers and a need to increase productivity, its chief operating officer Peter Landon-Lane said. “We end up having to leave a lot of the crop on the tree, because we just don’t have enough people to get it all off,” he says. “There’s huge demand for labor in the future that we can’t fulfil, and we won’t be able to meet it without tech.”

How it works: The machine uses lidar to navigate the rows between the trees, and machine vision to identify which apples are ripe and which aren’t. It then uses a vacuum to gently “suck” apples off the trees.

Harder than it looks: While agriculture is becoming increasingly automated, for example for weeding crops, picking fruit and vegetables is taking longer to reach the same level. Why? It involves more careful judgement, and it’s a tricky task to ensure you don’t damage the produce as it’s picked.

Replacing humans? T&G claims there won’t be any job losses because of this new robotic deployment—in part because it can’t yet pick all the fruit needed. The robots will be used at night to reach the hardest-to-reach parts of the tree.

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