A robotic harvester project could be a "game changer" for New Zealand's asparagus industry, growers say.
The New Zealand Asparagus Council and Tauranga-based Robotics Plus will work alongside Kiwi growers to develop a world-first, commercial-scale autonomous robotic asparagus harvester.
The harvester will help address ongoing labour shortages in the industry and support growers to tap into high-value export markets.
The Government's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund is contributing $2.6 million to the $5.83 million project.
"We're really excited to get this project under way as we simply don't have enough people to do the work," Mangaweka aparagus grower and New Zealand Asparagus Council chair, Sam Rainey said.
"Robotic harvesting will be a game-changer for the asparagus industry that currently relies heavily on picking asparagus by hand, which is hard toil."
An average picker walked 10 kilometres per day, so it was "extremely difficult" to attract people to do the work, Rainey said.
"Having the ability to access a commercial robotic harvester will also go a long way to helping manage costs, ensuring we can continue to put locally grown fresh asparagus on our plates."
Robotics Plus chief executive Steve Saunders said an autonomous asparagus harvester alleviated labour constraints, reduced and stabilised costs, and allowed New Zealand asparagus to have a more competitive offering in high-value export markets.
Green asparagus was ideal for a robotics project as it grew above ground, Saunders said.
"In addition, it replaces a physically arduous job that only has a brief employment window, that growers struggle to attract harvesting labour for."
The project built on a prototype harvester robot developed by University of Waikato researchers and supported by Robotics Plus over the last two seasons.
The project is led by Dr Shen Hin Lim, Senior Lecturer in Mechatronics and Mechanical Engineering and mainly assisted by PhD student Matthew Peebles and robotics engineer Josh Barnett, and mentored by Professor Mike Duke.
The first prototype robotic asparagus harvester was demonstrated in California in 2019, and the second iteration was trialled in Waikato last year.
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) supported the University of Waikato research programme, and Callaghan Innovation supported the PhD fellowship, prototypes and trials.
These early prototypes had given Robotics Plus great insight into creating a next-generation commercial-scale asparagus harvester and had helped generate strong interest from the asparagus industry, Saunders said.
Advancing the project to a commercially available asparagus harvester would help increase returns and exports, grower Geoff Lewis of Tendertips said.
However, it wasn't just about picking asparagus, Lewis said.
"It's all the other aspects this technology can bring to the industry, such as yield data and potential add-ons such as packing and even weeding."
Fresh asparagus accounts for more than 74 per cent of the global market share and has a compound annual growth rate of 3.1 per cent.
It is the fastest-growing fresh market vegetable per capita consumption throughout North America, with forecasts predicting the fresh market valuation close to US$30 billion by 2027.
Therefore, being able to export excess produce during the peak season in late October and November was crucial for grower returns and the industry's future, New Zealand Asparagus Council business manager, Karen Orr said.
"As part of this project, we'll be creating a unique selling proposition for New Zealand grown asparagus overseas to generate export revenue for the country."
Half the cost of producing asparagus was labour, Orr said.
"We had thriving asparagus exports in the '80s and '90s, but that has reduced to almost no exports due to increasing costs, particularly for labour."
There hadn't been any investment in the industry's future because grower returns had been decreasing, Orr said.
"That's why we've named this project 'Asparagus Future' - because this project is our future.
"We'll help growers work together with Robotics Plus and MPI to create a future path with this autonomous crop management project."