T&G robot apple picker

New Zealand agricultural giant T&G Global has carried out what it has described as a 'world first', in using a robotic harvester for a commercial apple harvest.

According to the the fresh produce grower, packer, shipper and marketer, the move marks the culmination of four years of working with US-based technology partner Abundant Robotics, which T&G’s parent company BayWa AG invested in two years ago as part of its strategy to expand digitisation across its agribusiness, and reflects the company’s commitment to innovation-led growth.

T&G global chief operating officer Peter Landon-Lane said the company was delighted to have reached a significant milestone in the evolution of the global apple industry, and for T&G’s home operations in New Zealand to be at the forefront.

“Automation enables us to continue to scale to meet increasing global demand for food, in the face of current and future labour market challenges,' he explained. 'We’ve been actively driving towards this for the past few years, including preparing our orchards to be robot-ready.

“This is in addition to the investment our parent company BayWa AG has made in Abundant Robotics, reflecting confidence in the technology, which has been developed with the apple industry from the outset.'

High density planting and specific pruning methods have been implemented at T&G’s Hawkes Bay orchards to make them suitable for Abundant Robotics’ technology. Canopy innovation and trialling of different ways of achieving automation compatibility has been a feature of orchard expansion initiatives since 2017.

Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere said the company evolved from its research-based origins after delivering a proof of concept prototype in 2015 and approached the commercialisation of the technology as a global opportunity from the start.

“With T&G Global we are able to run a year-round development programme leveraging work with US apple growers and New Zealand orchards during the complementary northern and southern hemisphere harvesting seasons,' Steere outlined. “Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself.

“Our relationship with growers and access to real-world conditions on partner orchards through the development and testing process has been key to getting the technology to the point where it is now commercially viable,” Steere added.

The Abundant Robotics technology is being used to pick a range of apple varieties including T&G’s proprietary Jazz and Envy, which are destined for supermarket shelves in New Zealand and overseas.

Landon-Lane said it would be some years before all T&G orchards were harvested in the same way, but this first harvest with Abundant Robotics was an exciting step forward.

“Apple-picking is tough physical work and it’s seasonal. Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity.

“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,” said Landon-Lane.