An apple orchard out the back of Puketapu has a new worker, one which could help the industry's chronic seasonal labour shortage in the long term.

The world's first robotic apple harvester has been set up at a T&G Global orchard in Hawke's Bay.

It looks less like Star Wars' C-3PO and more like a tractor, and makes a sound similar to a rooster, but it could be a game changer for apple growers, helping ease labour constraints the industry currently experiences.

The robot, which currently is nameless, was designed by American based company Abundant Robotics.

Advertisement

Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere , said it used computer vision to recognise the apples, then analyses them to decide whether they are ripe, before a vacuum is used to pick them.

Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics, said he feels like a proud parents seeing the robot harvest apples. Photo / Warren Buckland
Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics, said he feels like a proud parents seeing the robot harvest apples. Photo / Warren Buckland

When Hawke's Bay Today visited the robot, three people were operating it, but Steere said it was just for the first harvest, saying they were "overwhelming it with attention," to start with.

Further down the track, one person will be able to operate multiple machines.

The project had taken six years from the concept phase, and Steere said for the last four years they have travelled to wherever apples are being harvested to test prototypes.

"This is our second year we've been in New Zealand."

He hoped the robot would be used as a tool in the apple industry in the next few years.

"This is the first commercial harvest, it's a step in a small way, and as we do things in a small way this year then we start to do things in a bigger way next year and beyond."

T&G Global Chief Operating Officer Peter Landon-Lane said the new robot would help enable growth in the apple industry without the current labour issue the industry experiences.

The robot can identify ripe fruit using computer vision, and picks it using vacuum. Photo / Warren Buckland
The robot can identify ripe fruit using computer vision, and picks it using vacuum. Photo / Warren Buckland

"This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labour."

"Apple-picking is tough physical work and it's seasonal."

Global Innovation Manager at T&G Pipfruit, Gary Wellwood , said it was unlikely the innovation would replace seasonal fruit pickers, and schemes like the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme were still very much needed in the industry.

"The robot won't harvest 100 per cent of this crop ... we might put the robot through to do the first pick, and people do the second pick."

"It might only pick at night in here, and people pick during the day."

He hoped it would enable them to eventually move people who are currently picking into permanent employment in other roles in the orchard.

"We'd sooner use our people working in the orchard rather than harvesting the fruit."

The technology, which has been developed by American based company Abundant Robotics, is being used to pick T&G's JAZZ™ and Envy™ apples.

He said they have been making their orchards "robot ready" for several years which including pruning trees to be very linear, almost 2-dimensional, rather than pruning them to be a regular, bushy, three-dimensional tree.