Fieldays kicks off

12 June 2019

The University of Waikato Fieldays stand

Fieldays 2019 opened today, with the usual patient queues, fast-filling carparks, redbands and swannies.

The University of Waikato stand in the Main Pavilion features robotics and the work done by university engineering staff and students in conjunction with Robotics Plus Ltd in Tauranga.

CEO of Robotics Plus Dr Matt Glenn says his company has a strong relationship with Waikato University and they’ve been involved in a number of collaborative projects. Robotics Plus’ mission is to “power up productivity in food and fibre value chains” commercialising robotic solutions for the agriculture, horticulture, viticulture and the forestry industries.

“Harvesting is often a very repetitive and difficult manual job and labour is becoming increasingly scarce,” says Dr Glenn. “In many growing industries we are seeing produce left on the trees or being ploughed back into the land as labour becomes more scarce; automation of harvesting is the only way to resolve these issues.”

The University of Waikato Fieldays stand includes a prototype asparagus harvester, designed to take the hardwork out of asparagus picking, and a replica of a log scanner, a machine that can quickly weigh and measure logs on a truck.

The asparagus harvester, fresh back from testing in California, is a machine that can spot a spear, line it up and cut it off at ground level.

The idea for such a machine began towards the end of 2015 when University of Waikato lecturer Dr Shen Hin Lim arrived in Hamilton from the University of New South Wales, keen to find a project that had practical and beneficial application. The mechanical engineer approached Callaghan Innovation, who put him onto Geoff Lewis from Horowhenua asparagus growers Tendertips.

The asparagus harvester will spot a spear, line it up and cut it off at ground level.

“They were keen to get an asparagus harvester, simple as that,” says Dr Lim. “I applied for Callaghan funding to support a PhD student and towards the end of 2016 the funding came through. We then received internal funding from the University of Waikato too and that enabled us to purchase the equipment we needed.”

The challenge was to design a sensor that could accurately locate individual spears. PhD student Matthew Peebles was tasked with developing a vision recognition system using a time of flight camera that would determine asparagus point position.

That was the first step. Then in 2017 and 2018 Dr Lim created fourth-year engineering capstone projects to build test rigs for data collection and test visual recognition system concepts and potentials.

Dr Lim says the students working on the project got a good grasp of what a real-word project involved. “The hands-on stuff, purchasing, having to come up with drawings a fabricator can use, everything; really a crash course on all they’d learned previously during their degree study, but actually applying it.”

University Technical Officer Josh Barnett was employed to build the next version of the test rig, which included a harvester arm, to demonstrate an asparagus harvesting concept and its potential. Another technical officer in Waikato’s School of Engineering, Gordon Neshausen also joined the team to travel to America to aid the demonstration.

AgriTech New Zealand heard about the project, contacted the university, and put them on to Western Growers in California. “They said they’d be keen to see our harvester and would we go over to demonstrate it. It was going to be a good opportunity to test it before taking our findings to Tendertips,” says Dr Lim.

Equally keen to see the harvester at work was Matthew Peebles. “California was its first real physical challenge. We’d tested the vision system on farms before, but the hardware hadn’t been tested on location. So we were keen to see how it all came together on American soil.”

The results were promising, and now work begins to refine the model.

Fieldays runs 12-15 June.

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