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US: Robots may have future in apple orchards

Here on the verdant Royal Slope, cutting-edge technology is rolling through an apple orchard. As engineers and horticulturists watch, six pairs of cameras on a white steel bar move down a track snapping three-dimensional photos. The photos, along with data on the size and number of apples, are transmitted to a nearby computer for further analysis.

Similar demonstrations of this robotic scout in six sites throughout Central Washington last week provided a peek at new technology in the tree fruit industry.

When fully developed, the scout will roam an entire orchard on its own, collecting data to help growers better manage their orchards, said Tim McConnell, senior technical staff and project manager for Vision Robotics.

But at least as important, it could be the foundation for other technologies, such as a mechanized thinning or harvesting device, he said.

Such technology is considered key for the future of the fruit tree industry as it battles increasing international competition from countries with very low labor costs.

New technology may reduce the number of manual-labor workers, said Charlie de La Chapelle, a Lower Valley grower, but it will create high-skilled jobs. "I think technology will give us the ability to keep our costs in control," he said.

The scout is the brainchild of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, the California Citrus Research Board and Vision Robotics, a San Diego-company that designs robotic devices.

Robotic technology is becoming possible as software and hardware grow cheaper, said Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa. The first
vision-processing robots developed in the 1960s cost from $500,000 to $1 million each and took up an entire room.

Now far less-expensive technology can be made far smaller, such as cameras used in the prototype apple scouting device.

"Technology is moving very rapidly," Morikawa said. "That's why these robots are starting to pop up."

One only has to look to the fruit packing house to see such technology applied on a daily basis.

In the Yakima Valley, Holtzinger Fruit and Monson Fruit, for example, use the technology in mechanized packing lines that gently sort the delicate Rainier cherry by size and color.

Loren Queen, communications and marketing director for Domex Superfresh Growers, which operates the Monson Fruit facility, said the technology has helped packing houses provide a consistent product to retailers.

The same technology could help provide farmers with the information needed to best manage their orchards, he said.

"That (information) helps us better know when to harvest and then decide what to do from a marketing standpoint."

Based on what they learned during last week's demonstrations, Vision Robotics will return to California to develop an even stronger prototype more sensitive to a variety of orchards and apples, McConnell said.

The goal is to develop a solid prototype that will generate further investment from other sources, such as venture capitalists, the government and of course, the industry itself, said Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission.

"I think this kind of stuff has the potential to create jobs that are secure and long-term (that) improve our communities," said Mike Robinson, manager of Baird Orchard, located on the Royal Slope and one of the sites for the demonstrations. "I think it's worth federal investment."

It's uncertain how long the process from prototype and product could take.

Morikawa, the Vision Robotics CEO, said the company could develop the product in about two to three years.

Many, however, are more cautious. McFerson noted that it may be difficult to obtain the sufficient financial resources. A commercial product could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We're optimistic that we can do it, but it's going to take time and money," de La Chapelle said.

But all agree that such technology is necessary to compete in a global environment.

"Any technology we can utilize to improve the eating experience of the consumer is something that we are pursuing," Queen said. "If it helps us be more efficient as growers, then we embrace it and do so quickly."


Publication date: 10/30/2007


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