Tom Simonite, MIT Technology Review, May 3, 2017
Roughly $4 billion worth of apples are harvested in the U.S. each year. Startup Abundant Robotics hopes to suck up some of it with a machine that vacuums ripe fruit off the tree.
Today apple orchards rely on people to pick their crops. Dan Steere, cofounder and CEO of Abundant, says recent tests in Australia, where apple season is under way, proved that the company’s prototype can spot apples roughly as accurately as a human, and pull them down just as gently. The machine deposits apples in the same large crates that human pickers use.
“The results convinced us that we’re on the right path to scale up to a full commercial system,” says Steere.
His company is planning more tests of its prototype in Washington this fall and aims to have a multi-armed system on sale to growers in 2018. “Our commercial system will pick at rates that match crews of tens of people,” says Steere.
Manoj Karkee, an associate professor at Washington State University, says that what he has seen of Abundant’s technology is impressive.
“I think in the next three years there will be at least one machine on the market,” says Karkee. He’s been working on an alternative approach where a machine carefully shakes apples off the tree by grabbing branches (this approach is already used for some apples destined for juicing, which don’t need to be handled so gently). Abundant’s competition also includes Israeli startup FFRobotics, which says it will test a prototype that plucks fruit with a three-fingered gripper in Washington this fall.