Apple updates: robots and purple rain
New autonomous robotic technology developed by Monash University researchers has the potential to become the apple of the Australian horticultural industry’s eye, thanks to the potential benefits it could offer during the current labour shortage crisis.
A research team, led by Dr Chao Chen from Monash University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has developed an autonomous harvesting robot capable of identifying, picking and depositing apples in as little as seven seconds.
Following extensive trials in February and March this year at Fankhauser Apples in Drouin, Victoria, the robot was able to harvest more than 85 percent of all reachable apples in the canopy as identified by its vision system. Of all apples harvested, fewer than six percent were damaged due to stem removal. Apples without stems can still be sold, but don’t necessarily fit the cosmetic guidelines of some retailers.
“Our vision system can not only positively identify apples in a tree in an outdoors orchard environment by means of deep learning, but also identify obstacles, such as leaves and branches, to calculate the optimum trajectory for apple extraction,” Dr Chen says.
The robot grasps apples with a specially designed pneumatically-powered soft gripper with four independently operating fingers and a suction system that grasps and extracts apples efficiently, while minimising damage to the fruit and the tree itself.
In addition, the suction system draws the apple from the canopy into the gripper, reducing the need for the gripper to reach into the canopy, potentially damaging its surroundings.
One million reasons to enjoy Bravo apples
Consumers will be able to enjoy more of the unique dark burgundy Bravo apples developed in Western Australia, with one million more kilos of the fruit set to be produced this year.
Harvest of the vibrant and flavonoid-rich fruit is now underway at orchards in the Perth Hills, Manjimup and Donnybrook, which is predicted to see a significant increase in availability as plantings expand and trees mature. About 3000 tonnes of the fruit, produced from the variety known as ANABP 01 that meets the grade to be branded as Bravo, will be picked across Australia over the next four weeks.
While supplies in local retail stores will increase in coming weeks, the appealing apple has also struck a chord with overseas customers, with Bravo apples securing a slice of the high-end retail market in Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong.
This is just the sixth harvest of Bravo apples, which were developed in Western Australia over two decades by the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, which continues to work on new, healthier apple varieties via the Australian National Apple Breeding program. This is the same breeding program that created the Cripps Pink and Cripps Red apples, marketed as Pink Lady and Sundowner.
There are now 26 Bravo apple producers in Western Australia, while plantings of the variety are increasing in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.
Bravo apples can be identified in retail stores by their distinctive deep burgundy colour and blue Bravo sticker. To find out more, head to bravoapples.com.au