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In-orchard robots leading change at Fieldays

14 June 2017

AMMP Kiwifruit robot at Fieldays
Robotics Plus Director Dr Alistair Scarfe, Auckland Uni's Dr Henry Williams and Waikato Uni's Professor Mike Duke with the AMMP robot at the 2017 Fieldays.

Kiwifruit and apple pickers of the robot kind make their stage debut at the 2017 New Zealand Agricultural Fieldays today.

Tauranga-based company Robotics Plus is giving Fieldays visitors a glimpse into the future of robotics in horticulture with its Autonomous Mobile Multi-purpose Platform (AMMP) prototype, on show at the University of Waikato stand.

Robotics Plus Director and owner Dr Alistair Scarfe set out to solve one of the country’s big problems in the primary sector when he developed the original AMMP prototype.

“Industry growth across a lot of horticultural and agricultural sectors is constrained by the amount of people they can get in to do the work. If we can develop the technology to automate these on-orchard tasks to reduce the costs for orchardists, it will allow them to remain competitive on an international market,” he says.

The University of Waikato’s Dr John Gallagher Chair in Engineering Professor Mike Duke agrees. “In my idealised world, New Zealand will design and manufacture high-end robotics that will improve efficiency and overcome the labour shortage we have in this sector.”

Enter the AMMP. It’s a machine capable of driving itself through an orchard in search of fruit to be harvested, with detachable arms to sense the position of the fruit and using just the right amount of pressure to pick the fruit without damaging it before depositing it into bins.

“The beauty of the AMMP is that it’s designed to be multi-functional,” says Professor Duke. “Sensing systems, custom arms or spraying systems can be interchanged without needing to build a whole new machine for each task.”

Dr Henry Williams, postdoctoral Research Fellow from the University of Auckland, continues to work on the project and credits its success to strong collaborative partnerships that ensure the technology being developed is suitable for the environment it will be working in.

“The tasks were divided up between the physical building of the platform and attachments by the University of Waikato led by Mike Duke, the intelligence and processing systems developed by University of Auckland led by Professor Bruce MacDonald, the spray systems and pollination counts from Plant & Food Research and Professor Stuart Bradley from the University of Auckland, and the commercial aspect and overall guidance from Robotics Plus,” Dr Williams says.

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The AMMP robot being tested in the lab.

University of Waikato engineering students Zahra Al-Khaleefa, Henri Bardoul, Hamish Carter and Erin Sims, supervised by Professor Duke, took up the challenge to develop an attachment to pick apples. They worked intensively with Dr Scarfe from Robotics Plus on the functionality of the automated apple harvester prototype which represents another step toward robotic harvesters becoming a reality in horticultural industries. Work is already underway by Plant & Food Research to develop linear orchards in New Zealand for the use of robotic harvesting.

Hamish Carter, now working at Robotics Plus on his Masters research, says the opportunity to engage with industry to effect change and solve a real problem is one he is grateful for. “Our contribution has very real benefits to the apple industry and that’s been an invaluable process to be part of.”

The AMMP is looking to trade in its working name for something more ‘catchy’. Visitors to the University of Waikato stand are invited to check out the prototype on display and submit a name idea. Fieldays runs from today (Wednesday 14 June) until Saturday at Mystery Creek, Hamilton.

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