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Italy: Robots, automatic machinery and tractors for apple growing

Many companies presented their new agricultural machines at Interpoma 2014.

Walter Hass, tree-growing consultant for Sudtiroler Beratungsring and fruit-growing machinery specialist, explained the pros and cons of mechanisation.

Inside a modern tractor (Presentation: Hass).

Of course mechanisation makes work easier and increases productivity, but it uses more energy, produces more carbon dioxide and increases the risk of incidents.

Machinery has changed a lot over the years, especially if we think that now, one of the basic requirements of a tractor is to "protect the health of the driver" with a reinforced cabin or a roll-bar. It must also be as light as possible, pollute as little as possible and be equipped with tyres that do not damage the soil.

A modern soil-management machine (Presentation: Hass).

"We are willing to pay 80 thousand Euros for a tractor, but we are not even paying attention to the tyres." Proper tyres can help preserve the soil of the orchard, for example there are lighter tyres, ones with specific grooves or wider ones that can help distribute the weight of the tractor. Atomisers have also been improved over time. 

A modern atomiser (Presentation Hass).

Karen Lewis from the Washington State University, talked about innovation for the fruit growing sector. She showed two photos, one dating back to 1939 and one taken this year. Basically there are no differences, because harvesting is still carried out by hand.

The photos showed by Lewis. Left, apple harvesting in 1939; right, apple harvesting in 2014 (Presentation: Lewis).

In the US, this operation is performed on the over 133 thousand hectares cultivated in 10 different states. Of course this has a cost - as regards Honeycrisp apples, for example, the harvesting cost represents 29% of the final price.

There is a lot that can be done, so Lewis presented a new row concept - SNAP, acronym of simple, narrow, accessible and productive.

An 'automised' apple orchard (Presentation: Lewis).

This type of machinery is different, but the objective is ultimately to increase productivity. This can be achieved either lowering hourly costs or improving the quality of the result, which translates into making more profits. The purpose of SNAP is to achieve a completely automatised system to reduce the need for labour by 80% and harvesting an apple every 2 seconds. All this must be economically viable too. This is why research is currently being carries out on "pick and place" robotics and "shaking" machines.

An apple tree shaker (Presentation: Lewis)

Research has so far managed to produce machines that can harvest as much as 80% of the fruit on trees, but they are still far too bulky, expensive and too much fruit is still left on trees.
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