When you hear the words robots and future in tandem, we’re guessing an idyllic orchard by the coast doesn’t immediately spring to mind. So it might come as a surprise that situated along the Bay of Plenty’s stunning coastline is a robotics company gearing up for global impact as it works to secure food production for future generations.
Robotics Plus was founded in Tauranga in 2009, the fourth business within Steve Saunders’ horticultural solutions portfolio, the Plus Group. It began with a fortuitous meeting between Saunders and then PhD student, Alistair Scarfe. Saunders was on a Zespri Group-organised research trip to Massey University scouting for ingenious solutions to some of the horticulture industry's biggest challenges. “Through the Plus Group we had a world class pollination company,” Saunders says. “I had this idea about how we could robotically pollinate or robotically pick fruit.” Scarfe and Saunders started talking about how to make that exciting vision a reality, and, according to Scarfe, “it’s all really spun out from there.”
We’re standing in the Robotics Plus workshop at Newnham Innovation Park near the tip of the Te Puna peninsula, about 15 minutes from Tauranga. Outside, it's all rolling hills and kiwifruit orchards in bloom; inside we find an immaculate workshop where every tool has its place. The only surprising item is an impressive looking dirt bike – which we discover belongs to Scarfe – resting after a weekend outing. This could be the workshop of any mechanically-minded, very neat, tinkerer, except the hardware being tinkered with is high-tech, intelligent robotics solutions that are on the brink of changing the way the world cultivates fruit.
In one corner of the workshop stands the Robotics Plus Apple Packer, the first commercially available product in the fledgling company’s fleet of robotics solutions. It doesn’t look like much: a frame with a central conveyer belt and four robotic arms with ‘hands’ for picking up apples and placing them onto trays. One of the company's post-doctorate employees loads the feed with apples and places a line-up of trays onto the belt. Then he turns it on.
The way the robotic arms move is hypnotic and strangely human. They collect fruit from the feed tubes and move them to the trays independently of each other. It’s much less ordered than you’d initially expect, but it’s also easy to tell how efficient the process is, the equivalent of two human hands working at high-speed, orienting and placing the fruit at the same angle.
The real magic happens when a tray is full and an apple-wielding arm can’t find a space – it darts forward, stops to consider, and then moves backward again, patiently. It’s difficult not to anthropomorphise them, to imagine a frown as an arm repeatedly looks for an available space.
This apple packer can sort and pack up to 120 apples-a-minute – faster than a team of two humans, and with much greater accuracy and delicacy. It’s an elegant creature and it’s difficult to tear your eyes away. Despite being its creator, Scarfe agrees. “I can still go into a pack house and see the apple packer running, and can quite easily stand there for 10 minutes and watch it,” he says. “It surprises you every now and then, like, oh why did it do that? You look at it and think through one of the processes and you’re like, actually that was the right way.” Has he built a machine that’s smarter than him? No, he laughs, not yet.
The apple packer, supported by Callaghan Innovation, was the first Robotics Plus invention, inspired by a chance meeting between Saunders and some of New Zealand’s top apple growers. The Nelson-based Heartland Group were interested in what technology could do fo...
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