Tree Fruit Growers Move Toward Automation

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Trialing Technology

Trials with an orchard platform prototype were conducted in 24 Pennsylvania orchard blocks during 2006 to 2007. Tree architectures included peaches trained to perpendicular V and apples trained to vertical axis. The purpose of taking the orchard platform to as many orchards as possible was two-fold — the research team could evaluate platform efficacy with various modifications of tree training systems, and growers would have the opportunity to assess where tree training and plant spacing adjustments should be made for improved adaptation to automation. An added benefit of commercial orchard trials was that growers and employees provided valuable feedback on possible future directions for team research.

Worker productivity with the moveable platform compared to ladders increased by an average of 35% for peach thinning and pruning and 50% for peach harvest and apple thinning, tree training, or pruning. Task times per acre with ladders ranged from 11 hours for tree tying and pinching to 90 hours for apple thinning, and with the orchard platform ranged from six hours for tree tying and pinching to 51 hours for apple thinning. The platform was more efficient than ladders for all tasks.Some growers have built their own platforms and others have used semi- autonomous platforms with harvest assist capabilities from Washington or directly from Europe.

In addition, Carnegie Mellon University has automated a model of an Italian platform that is being evaluated by Penn State. Through the “Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops” SCRI project, Carnegie Mellon engineers led by Dr. Sanjiv Singh have also added sensor technology to these platforms.

In tandem with mobile platforms, the use of harvest-assist technology is also being addressed. Knowing that sensitive fruit handling has long been a stumbling block, Carnegie Mellon and Penn State once again teamed up to evaluate bin filler prototypes. During the initial year of this project, two passive bin filler prototypes showed promise in laboratory tests to assess potential reductions in damage to fruit during the bin filling process.

Current efforts focus on integrating an apple transport system with a bin filler design, so that fruit are singled out upon picking all the way to the bin. In 2010, the project team began working with a commercialization partner, DBR Conveyor Concepts in Conklin, MI, on a vacuum tube transport system and automated bin filler that can be retrofitted to existing grower equipment. For Penn State trials, the harvest system was adapted to the orchard platform automated by Carnegie Mellon.

More Information

Check out the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops website ( for more background on mobile platforms and harvest-assist technology. The “What’s New” section includes videos of autonomous harvester trials in Washington (part of a multi-state trialing system) as well as a vacuum assist harvester.

For more information on innovative thinning technologies, go to The latest video update highlights automated positioning of the Darwin string thinner, which is being evaluated as part of another multi-state project.

Aside from videos, each of these sites has updated reports on the latest research from across the country.

Brian Sparks is editor of American Fruit Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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