Firms want robotics study to bear fruit

By David Porter

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Steve Saunders is one of the Tauranga businessmen developing automated solutions for orchards with his PlusGroup company RoboticsPlus. Photo/File
Steve Saunders is one of the Tauranga businessmen developing automated solutions for orchards with his PlusGroup company RoboticsPlus. Photo/File

Twenty-three companies in the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions are taking part in a University of Waikato Agritech Group automation study, co-funded by Priority One, which aims to identify potential research programmes that could help local companies develop robotics-type technologies.

The objective is to ensure automated solutions are responsive to the practical problems faced by businesses - particularly in the agri-tech sector - and that they are financially realistic, said experts associated with the study.

Preliminary findings were released earlier this week at the Newnham Park headquarters of Steve Saunders' PlusGroup Horticulture Limited. Mr Saunders is one of the Tauranga businessmen who has led the charge on developing automated solutions for orchards with his PlusGroup company RoboticsPlus.

"Primary industries have very complex robotics challenges operating in forests and farms," said UoW BOP research manager Shane Stuart, who is running the study.

"It's actually way harder than doing it in the factory. And the primary sector has very low margins. It's very easy for researchers to have great ideas for technologies, but simply the economics do not work for the industry.

"That's why the RoboticsPlus people have been able to do things, because Steve [Saunders] has a background in the primary industry."

Mr Saunders noted that automated solutions had to be worked back from what the farmer could use and would save him money, rather than have experts coming up with solutions that might not work in the real world environment of farms and orchards.

"Whatever we build has to be affordable for the end user in order to give a return to the investor,"

Other supporters of the project include WaikatoLink, Callaghan Innovation, Plant and Food Research, and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

"It's about more than just agriculture," said Mr Stuart. "We needed to get a sense of what people are doing and how it can be shaped to fit into what we do."

Mr Stuart said there were also lots of potential projects that did not require complex robotics, which were just about automating simple tasks that were currently done manually.

Mr Saunders said the automated applications that had been developed by RoboticsPlus "on a shoestring" were recognised by international groups working on orchard robotics.

The robotics side of the Plus group is led by Alister Scarfe, a young engineer who has a PhD for his work in this area.

The two key issues facing the on-farm sectors - especially in labour-intensive sectors such as fruit picking - were the rising costs of labour and the expected long-term increase in the costs of inputs such as phosphate fertiliser, said Mr Saunders.

"People can only afford to pay so much for food and with the rising costs of inputs some of those foods will be going up.

"The real opportunity and advantage is going to be in doing things smarter, quicker and more efficiently."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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