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Artificial intelligence for the apple harvest

A world first goes into operation: The apple harvest has begun in New Zealand and the BayWa subsidiary T&G Global is using a commercial picking robot alongside human pickers for the first time. The robot was developed by the US start-up Abundant Robotics, in which the Munich-based Group acquired a stake in 2017. BayWa believes it is possible that apples from German orchards will be harvested with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) for the first time in approximately two years.

A lack of workers and increasing costs represent growing challenges, particularly in the speciality crops segment, which is heavily dependent on manual labour. “Without the limitations imposed by these external conditions, producers can use AI to increase productivity and thereby ensure that they remain sustainably competitive,” says Klaus Josef Lutz, Chief Executive Officer of BayWa AG. The use of robots to pick fruit from hard-to-reach parts of the tree also reduces the physical strain on employees. “We are investing in innovation and digitalisation to give fruit producers and downstream areas early access to such smart technologies – in New Zealand, Germany and other apple growing regions around the world.” If the external conditions, for example the way trees are planted and pruned in the growing region, are suitable, then such robots could also be used in Germany in approximately two years, says Lutz.

It took four years to develop the first commercial harvesting robot. In order to allow development throughout the year, the technology was tested and developed in the USA and New Zealand – in the latter case at orchards in the Hawkes Bay region owned by T&G Global. The successful use of the robots depended on the orchards being prepared accordingly, through higher density planting and special pruning measures. “The robot’s requirements are very complex,” says Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics. “The AI has to visually recognise fruit that is ripe for picking, pick it without damaging it, and navigate the orchard safely.”

Abundant Robotics will analyse the experience and data of using the picking robot during the current harvest season in New Zealand and use the information to help build the next generation of robots. T&G Global expects to phase in the use of robots over time as the technology develops and orchard planting systems are available to use more harvesting robots of this type at its orchards.