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New Zealand company creates robots for horticulture

Worldwide, the value of the horticultural industry will increase with better pollination systems, robust quality control, better traceability systems, more cost-competitive practice and solutions for the difficulty of finding seasonal orchard crews.

The Tauranga-based company Robotics Plus believes the time is ripe for innovative automation in the horticultural industry.

Steve Saunders is the founder and managing director of Robotics Plus. He began working in the industry in fruit pack houses. Early on, he recognised the need for innovation to ensure efficiency, best practice and cost-competitiveness. Steve’s vision and industry knowledge collided with technical know-how when he met mechatronics engineer Dr Alistair Scarfe. Both men wanted to develop technology and capability with a focus on automated systems for horticulture.

Robotics Plus was set up, focusing on developing mechanisation, automation, robotics and sensor technologies for horticulture and other primary industries.

One of the new concepts they created was the QuadDuster, a quadbike-based kiwifruit pollination system. It was a natural starting place because of the connection with Steve’s kiwifruit pollen business, Pollen Plus, that harvests and processes kiwifruit pollen to sell to orchardists.

The QuadDuster system was developed to improve pollination of kiwifruit, allowing for the even distribution of dry pollen into the vine canopy. The entire system is electronically controlled. This includes pollen dispenser monitoring to ensure consistent delivery, set-speed cruise control on the quad bikes and GPS tracking to show the orchardist where the bikes have been. In 2015, QuadDusters were used in about 25% of New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry, and this is set to grow. describes how the QuadDuster provided a proof of concept, demonstrating how Robotics Plus could capitalise on orchard technology.

Another Robotics Plus product is the Robotic Apple Packing Cell. In the 2015 season, it packed 1.47 million apples and proved efficient, with more consistent quality presentation than was achieved by people. Growers involved in the preliminary trials were very pleased.

The commercial trials will deploy six robot cells. The robot cells are made to work in standard industry packhouses. The system packs 120 apples per minute, orienting the fruit so all of the stems are lying horizontal in the trays and pointing in the same direction, all while having the colour side of the apple facing up for optimum presentation. One robot does the work of two to three people. The robot uses pneumatics (suction cups) to handle the fruit. This is gentle and ensures that no human hands touch the fruit during packing, reducing contamination issues.

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