Rights: Showdown Productions Published 13 December 2016 Download

Robotics Plus is a Tauranga company focusing on the development and use of robotic technologies for horticulture and other primary industries. Their QuadDuster for artificial pollination of kiwifruit is being used by 25% of New Zealand orchards.

Roger Bourne

There are a number of challenges for New Zealand’s horticulture sector. Among these are finding and retaining seasonal labour, ensuring consistent pollination, guaranteeing quality in picking and packing, and safeguarding traceability.

Tauranga-based company Robotics Plus is proving that automation in horticulture can be engineered to improve systems and reduce costs.

Steve Saunders

My interest in robotics really was – I have vertical ownership right through the chain, from owning orchards, to leasing orchards, to orchard management company, all the way into ownership in post-harvest – and what I like to do is really look at where we’re going to be in 5 to 10 years’ time and what sort of things would impact us.

So, in terms of the kiwifruit sector, I can see labour is obviously going to be a threat to all of us, whether it’s kiwifruit or apples or any of the horticultural crops. Labour costs will keep rising, people today don’t want to do those hard physical jobs, so we’re becoming more reliant on RSE workers, and anyone that’s run large horticultural operations knows how difficult it is to get consistency with staff. So we sort of saw robotics as a future way of mitigating some of that risk.

I guess it really started around our pollination company, and we were looking at how we could automate pollination. During that process, that’s where I met young Alistair, who we then hooked up with and helped him through his PhD. But when we started looking at pollination, we thought that the goalpost of robotic pollen application was too far stretched, and we decided that maybe looking at kiwifruit harvesting was actually a more attainable opportunity. So being a sort of entrepreneur investor, I decided to hook up with that and have a crack at that, and we started that journey, I think, in about 2009, as part of Alistair’s PhD, which actually was to build a prototype kiwifruit robotic harvester.

Obviously now with the resurgence of G3 in the industry and the increase in crops, and we’re now – this will be the biggest kiwifruit crop ever harvested in New Zealand – you can start to see the pressures that are coming on with labour. So the level of interest is starting to ramp up. So we’ve probably been harder to get that interest in terms of kiwifruit, but in terms of what we’re doing with robotic apple packing technology, I’d acknowledge Compass Packhouse for being someone that was thinking forward as well and allowed us to form a relationship to actually test robotic apple packing. And as a result, we’ve got six commercial machines going into their packhouse very shortly, which will be a great result.

Dr Alistair Scarfe

We’re working in an innovation park, we’re a park that’s set up for fostering innovative companies. A lot of it’s around that food, agriculture, horticulture industry. We’re in our development space as part of Robotics Plus, where we are building our first commercial run of our apple packing machines.

They’re designed to drop onto a standard grading/sorting machine that the industry has really widely adopted, the likes of the compact sorting equipment. So these machines take pre-sized and sorted apples, they run them through the machine, and all the apples get oriented. So, we rotate them, and we control their rotation in a very specific way, so they lie horizontally. Once they lie horizontally, our machine comes forward, picks them up – up to four at a time – scoops them back and then places them nice and gently into the trays. They’re all in the same orientation.

There’s a lot of positive feedback around the concept and around the ability we’ve got now. They’re sort of saying that we are equivalent in performance to about two and a half people from our throughput, but we’re getting a better presentation. So our packing quality is better, and our handling is better and more consistent too, which is a really promising, nice little step for us for that commercial deployment.

Well, we’ve had one unit running in a packhouse in Nelson for – we had it running in there for a couple of months – where we just had one machine doing a small trial. We were pretty happy with that. We’ve packed about 1.4 million apples through one machine. It’s not their peak time of the season, so it wasn’t getting some of the throughput it normally would, but it’s quite a promising start. Within about an hour of them seeing the machine running, they were like, “Where’s our next nine or 10 machines? Come on, when are they available?” type scenario. So it was a really nice step to really see that fast adoption of wanting to utilise the technology.

This our mark 2 version of our harvesting arm for kiwifruit. We developed our first prototype a few years back, which we trialled and had a lot of learning from, and we’ve now taken that learning in developing the new technology. We’ve still got a little bit to go with some of the picking hand and bits and pieces. We’re refining that and narrowing it down to make it suitable for harvesting kiwifruit in a commercial operation.

About a year and a half ago, we were fortunate enough – Robotics Plus is the commercial partner in a MBIE, which is Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, high-value manufacturing rounds, where we put in a bid with Auckland University, Waikato University, and Plant & Food Research. So we are driving from a commercial standpoint, making sure there’s a commercial focus to that research, making sure there’s end-user engagement in that research.

The other part with that is Callaghan Innovation, another government agency, has been fantastic in sponsoring that project from an early stage and allowed us to really ramp up our development process to get to market faster. You know, without that, we really would have been a lot longer, I think. Bringing more expertise into our team, which that allowed us to do, has really refined our development, because my skill set is rather broad and same with some of the other team members. So being able to get some defined precise skill sets in behind some of what we’re doing has been really valuable.

Steve Saunders

One of the hardest things is getting people to adapt to technology. So if we’re to build technology and then go out and sell it, we’d have to sell at a price that most people would go, oh, question whether it will work, whether they want to invest that sort of money. So essentially, the model we’re looking at is, if you take apple packers in a packhouse, we have an install cost, and we service and maintain it, and you just pay per apple packed. But that model is based on what it costs you currently to have labour packing. So in fact it’s not costing you any more, but you’ve got a 24/7 reliability.

And then the same would go with harvesting. If currently growers pay $30 a bin to pick a bin of fruit, our target is that that’s what they’ll pay for a robot to pick a bin of fruit. So, everything we work on is from the ground back up, to look at those business models. And by doing it that way, it takes away that angst of buying a very expensive piece of technology. So, if it doesn’t work, they can remove it. It sort of just takes a lot of that decision-making process out. And we’ve trialled the model – we’ve got our kiwifruit QuadDusters that we do pollination services with. And that’s – again, what we did there was we produce pollen, we created some application technology, so our growers can subscribe in to have their application done for them. We currently apply pollen to about 25% of the New Zealand kiwifruit industry with the QuadDuster system. And that’s just proven that service model works. They don’t have to buy the QuadDuster, they can just dial in, let me know 3 o’clock today that they want their application tomorrow, and the bike arrives, does the job. So, it just makes it really simple.

The Science Learning Hub thanks Showdown Productions for the use of this Rural Delivery video clip.