Fairfax Tech Talk Column

Fairfax Tech Talk Column

04.12.2020 Pick-A-Ton Robotics - Tech Talk Column 227


Australia is a popular place to visit for backpackers of the world. For those of us that live here, that makes perfect sense. Australians are welcoming and generous and relaxed. Just as importantly, it is relatively easy for backpackers to secure some work, particularly as part of harvest crews on farms across the nation. At any given point in time, we typically see over 200,000 backpackers in our country.

As with so many aspects of our society at the moment, this year is a little different. With various reforms plus a little pandemic thrown in, we currently have less than 40,000 backpackers in the country and that number is decreasing.

That creates a major problem for farmers with harvest work to be done.

The answer may well be Clive. No, not some larger than life former politician with a grand plan for sending the unemployed metropolitan residents to regional areas. A fruit picking robot named Clive.

Although this will be an Australian first, using robotics for fruit picking is being developed across the world. At Wimbledon each year, 34 tonnes of strawberries are consumed by fans. A robot was recently unveiled that will team together in a group of fourteen such robots to take seven days to pick all the strawberries required for Wimbledon.

Not far away, at the University of Plymouth, a robot is currently being trialled that will pick 25,000 raspberries in a day. Not only does that dwarf the 15,000 that a human worker can manage in an eight-hour shift, there is no need for the robot to stop for food or toilet breaks or gossip sessions around the water cooler.

In Queensland, a three-metre-tall robot with nine arms is being tested for mango harvesting. With each arm capable of selecting, picking and depositing a mango in five seconds, it starts to make very light work of an entire mango crop.

I seem to talk about New Zealand innovations way more than I would like but a recent development out of Massey University in New Zealand is a kiwi-fruit harvester. Kiwi-fruit are relatively easy to harvest as they hang down from an overhead canopy but this unit can harvest the fruit, sort them into bins by size and deliver them to a pack house.

Back to Clive.

Clive will soon be working on two Goulburn Valley properties to see if a robot is a commercially viable alternative to humans. Sensors and cameras are used to view the fruit, decide if the fruit is the right colour and size and free of blemishes, and then use a suction arm to vacuum the apple, pear or stone fruit from the tree.

There is a strong belief that if our exceptional quality fruit is to be competitive on the world market, the way we can compete with countries that have lower labour costs is with technology.

The use of robotics always brings up issues related to the reduction in the workforce and the ethics associated with machines taking over. What happens next year if the 200,000 backpackers have no jobs in this country. We might miss out on revenue that those visitors generate in other areas. What about the issue of fault? If a robot damages fruit that is picked, who will compensate the farmer?

Technical issues as well as ethical issues will be answered as time goes forward, but there is a pretty good chance a piece of fruit you eat in the next five years will have been harvested by Clive – or one of his siblings.

Tell me what you would name a fruit harvesting robot at ask@techtalk.digital.

Mathew Dickerson