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Autonomous robot for vacuum apple picking

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SRI Spin-off Abundant Robotics – Developing Autonomous Apple Vacuum

The original author of this article is Evan Ackerman.


SRI Robotics presents a prototype of its autonomous apple picker that uses machine vision and vacuum robotics.

As an apple enthusiast, I take it for granted that apples will be within my reach at any given time. Except he had no idea that 4.2 million apples were picked in the United States in 2012. By hand.

Apple picking is a task that seems easy to automate: the environment is semi-structured, and you’re dealing with almost homogeneous objects. However, these almost homogeneous objects are often blocked by leaves and branches, and it is not easy to grab them quickly and delicately enough to compete with humans. Recently, robotic vision and manipulation have advanced enough to make autonomous apple harvesting a commercial success, and a few companies (including FFRobotics) are already working on the idea.

Last week, SRI International announced a new Silicon Valley spin-off company, Abundant Robotics, which is using robotics to try to automate the harvesting of orchards. From what we can tell, they’re using a kind of horizontally mounted, vacuum-assisted delta robot for gentle high-speed fruit picking, resulting in the cleanest, brightest apples I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s everything you need to know from the press release:

SRI International today announced the build-out and launch of Abundant Robotics, an agricultural technology company focused on helping make nutritious foods like apples and other tree fruits more accessible. SRI will research several successful research topics in the area of agricultural robotics.

“While orchard yields have improved significantly over the past two decades, labor productivity has not,” said Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics. “Our goal is to deliver robotic systems to make the hardest jobs in agriculture easier. The first automated apple harvesting system that doesn’t damage or harm the crop is a huge breakthrough in an industry that depends on seasonal labor challenges. “

The initial prototype of Abundant Robotics was designed using SRI technology to enable the automation of apple harvesting. Future developments may address other products and steps in the manufacturing process.

In addition to its sheer entertainment value, the vacuum picking technique (an approach used by other robotics groups) appears to be faster to operate and easier to implement than a traditional gripper. Because it only exerts suction when the opening is fully closed, you can rip the apples from the tree while leaving the leaves intact.

The tricky part, of course, will be “seeing” the apples, which are almost completely hidden behind leaves and branches. This problem is achieved with a very bulky robotic arm system. Making it reliable and cost-effective is another challenge, although the potential market is certainly significant.