Orchard robotics makes one juicy project

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Even in this high-tech era, people with bushel baskets still climb ladders to pick the apples we eat.

Manual labor rules the orchard.

And, excuse the apple puns, but the lack of automation has become the orchard industry's core problem. For years, orchard owners have been craving seed technology to juice up profits, ripen yields and peel away labor costs.

So Carnegie Mellon University is trying to polish apple production -- and while they're at it, orange production -- with some robotic technology. Apple and orange growers anxiously await the fruits of their labors.

"Everything is hand labor," said Reed Soergel, whose family owns Soergel Orchards in Franklin Park. "The big question for the industry is, when fruits or vegetables are ready to harvest, you can't take time to find labor.

"Labor is the biggest cost we have," he said. "There's no good way to harvest fresh fruit."

A team led by Sanjiv Singh, a research professor in CMU's Robotics Institute, is using Soergel's as a test site to develop robotic equipment that could offer advantages for orchard keepers.

Another group of researchers at the institute's National Robotics Engineering Center, or NREC, also is busy developing similar technology for orange groves.

The two research groups have received $10 million in grants ($6 million for apples and $4 million for oranges) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build automated farming systems.

"We firmly believe the two projects are critical to the viability of farming in the United States," said Herman Herman, a principal commercialization specialist at NREC. "The emphasis is identifying the issues and finding solutions to make this work in the real world."

The goal is affordable robotic technology that can improve fruit quality and lower production costs.

CMU, along with Penn State, Purdue, Oregon State and Washington State universities and various technology companies, have formed a consortium to push fruit production into the modern era.

At Soergel's, the four-wheeled vehicle Dr. Singh is developing features sensors, lasers, cameras, global positioning systems and other technology to be used to monitor tree growth and chlorophyll levels, spot early signs of disease or insect infestation, estimate yields and even determine optimal time for harvest.

In another phase, the technology will be advanced to mow between trees and selectively spray pesticides and herbicides. In time it could be expanded to include thinning, pruning and harvesting.

The projects were funded this fall hrough the USDA's new Specialty Crop Research Initiative. Dr. Singh is leading the Comprehensive Automation for Special Crops Program, while Tony Stentz and Dr. Herman at NREC are focusing on citrus.

NREC's Integrated Automation for Sustainable Specialty Crop Farming Project is preparing to deploy a fleet of unmanned tractors to orange groves of Southern Gardens Citrus, one of Florida's largest growers.

Other universities are working on biological improvements, including orchard and grove design.

Soergel Orchards, for example, has begun planting apple trees closer together to create a hedge effect, or wall of fruit, that's even easier to pick. The trees are bred to produce fruit on outside limbs, rather than deep in the tree, to make harvesting easier. "These are not the trees that [Sir Isaac] Newton sat under," Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Herman said the teams will share some technology, but differences, frankly, are apples and oranges. "We hope that within two to three years we have a system working in an actual citrus grove."

Mr. Soergel said "the most exciting part is keeping prices as low as possible and cutting costs" at the orchard his family has operated since 1850. One priority is giving an early alert to growers when insects arrive or disease shows up.

For now, Dr. Singh's team is developing a way for their robotic vehicle to understand where it's situated in the orchard.

Larger orchards already use moving platforms that proceed slowly, tree to tree, and can be raised or lowered depending on the fruit's location. An immediate goal is a platform that travels without a driver.

"We're taking baby steps," Dr. Singh said.

Or, as he notes with a wry smile, "we're picking the low-hanging fruit."

David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.

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