Grant helps WSU develop robotic apple picker

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PROSSER — Imagine a robot reaching its dozen tentacles through the leaves of an apple tree to pick ripe fruit at four times the rate of humans.

Manoj Karkee, a researcher at Washington State University, sees such a future only 10 or so years away.

Karkee, assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at the WSU research center in Prosser, and his team of scientists recently won a $548,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop an automated apple harvester that would work side-by-side with humans.

They received the money earlier this month, he said.

Karkee envisions a prototype within three to five years and commercially available models within 10, he said.

Fruit growers sometimes struggle to find workers in the Yakima Valley and throughout Washington, prompting members of Congress to call for immigration reform that would include a guest worker program.

Meanwhile, innovative farmers and engineers for centuries have been creating machines to cut down on labor.

Karkee doesn’t plan to bypass humans completely.

His idea is to pair an automated machine, which can work faster and with less fatigue than a human, with a field employee who would decide how and when to pick apples, when for example, they are obscured behind leaves or in clusters.

“Due to the complexity of fruit identification in an orchard environment, collaboration between human and machine is very important. This is what’s unique,” Karkee said in the news release.

“When the robot can’t deliver, humans will step in and vice versa.”

He and his team at the university’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center have been using computers and video to design a machine with arms and grabbers that would mimic the picking motion of a human hand to treat fruit as gently as possible.

The concept differs from WSU-Prosser’s automated cherry harvester prototype, which shakes tree limbs and catches the fruit below.

Apples are too heavy for that, Karkee said.

Funding for the grant came from the National Robotics Initiative, a joint program of the National Science Foundation, U.S. National Institute for Food and Agriculture, National Institutes of Health and NASA.

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