Robot fruit picker ‘Clive’ will be working on two Goulburn Valley properties to see if it is a commercially viable alternative to human labour. The machine was built by Australian company Ripe Robotics. It will be put to the test in the orchards of Turnbull Brothers and HV McNab and Son, near Shepparton, when harvest begins this summer.
Mitchell McNab, one of the orchardists taking part in the trial: "There are some sensors and cameras that, as the machine moves along the row, it can understand where the fruit is in the tree and whether it is an acceptable piece of fruit to harvest, whether it be the right colour or size or if there are any blemishes on the fruit, and then it instructs a suction arm to basically vacuum suck the apple, pear or stone fruit off the tree."
McNab has been studying the technology for a number of years and is excited at the prospect of getting to test the equipment during a commercial fruit harvest. He believes that if Australian growers are going to compete with countries with lower standards and a lower cost of production, technology will have to be the answer.
"The reality is that we operate in the highest cost labour market out of anywhere in the world, and for us to be able to compete on a world scale we need to reduce our cost of labour and as a result our cost of production," Mr McNab told abc.net.au: "We can then play on a level playing field of being able to sell our fruit right around the world."
McNab is worried about getting the workers needed for this year's harvest. "Typically we rely on the backpacker workforce to fill our harvest crews," he said. "There are usually 200,000-odd backpackers coming and going into Australia each year, and recent statistics I've seen show that there are only about 30,000 to 40,000 left in the country with a few hundred leaving each week and no more coming in."
Clive may be the answer to the current labour shortage in the agricultural industry.