Grant brings orchard robots closer

17 August, 2015

Plus Group's RoboticsPlus is part of a research partnership that has won a $7.5 million research grant from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, which will help the company commercialise automated systems for harvesting fruit and spraying pollen in orchards.

The Autonomous Multipurpose Mobile Platform (AMMP) modular robot will be capable of navigating autonomously in orchards and will include vision-sensing of flowers and fruit for kiwifruit and apples in orchards and arms and grippers for harvesting kiwifruit and apples.

It will also use fast-acting directional control mechanisms for precision targeted spraying of pollen and soft handling of apples and kiwifruit.

"It's a fantastic outcome," said Steve Saunders, managing director of the Plus Group.

"The focus of the research will be on developing our harvesting robotics platform and sensing technology to take the IP and the work we've already done to a commercial outcome."

He said RoboticsPlus had already developed a picking robot to prove the concept and the aim was to bring everything into a fully functional machine.

"We will be starting with kiwifruit and the end goal is apples," said Mr Saunders. "The aim is that the platform can be used in other agricultural areas once it's been developed."

Bruce MacDonald, associate professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering Department at research partner University of Auckland, said a lot of overseas automation and development was geared around manufacturing and increased efficiencies in factories. By contrast, New Zealand needed to improve automated technology that would work outdoors in the farm setting.

"The big picture I'm interested in is getting more outdoor robotics capacity in New Zealand," Dr MacDonald said.

"We need to get more automation in the primary sector in the kind of environment that our people are typically working in."

Dr MacDonald was particularly interested in the vision aspects of the research, including identifying fruit and flowers so they could be picked or sprayed directly with pollen.

"Finding fruit with cameras is a complicated problem outdoors. Our research is mostly about writing the software. We think there will be new algorithms that will come out of the research."

A team led by Mike Duke at the University of Waikato will work directly with RoboticsPlus chief executive Alistair Scarfe on the electro-mechanical components and controllers for the modular robot.

Meanwhile, a team from crown research institution Plant and Food will be working with researchers to help them understand the characteristics of flowers and fruit in order to develop the identifying algorithms.

Mr Saunders said RoboticsPlus was the commercially targeted research partner and would retain the outcome of the research and the intellectual property.

At a glance
• RoboticsPlus Ltd, based in Tauranga, will collaborate with the University of Auckland, Plant and Food Research, and the University of Waikato on a $7.5 million agricultural robot research project, with the funding spread over four years.

(Original article courtesy of