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New Zealand’s Robotics Plus beta tests Unmanned Ground Vehicles

The UGV’s can replace a heavy tractor vehicle with a human operator with a smaller, unmanned machine.

New Zealand’s Robotics Plus is beta testing three new Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV‘s) to demonstrate the application of its technology in several environments. The UGV’s allow growers to replace a heavy tractor vehicle with a human operator with a smaller, unmanned, more agile machine.

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The concept of the UGV's is based on modular technology. The unmanned ground vehicles will be able to navigate their way through orchards and fields. - Photo: Robotics Plus
The concept of the UGV's is based on modular technology. The unmanned ground vehicles will be able to navigate their way through orchards and fields. - Photo: Robotics Plus

Robotics Plus UGV based on modular technology

The concept of the UGV’s is based on modular technology. The unmanned ground vehicles will be able to navigate their way through orchards and fields, says Steven Saunders, Co-Founder and Board Chairman of Robotics Plus. “They use sensors to map the environment so they can get close to plants without damaging them. We created a central smart black box which does all the navigation and has all the technology needed for driving the electric motor.”

The black box can go on any size platform. “If you use an autonomous vehicle and you have wine grapes, you‘ve got very narrow rows” Mr Saunders points out. “An apple orchard has wider rows. We have to be able to adapt to any row spacing or load.”

You can attach a sprayer, a fertiliser spreader, a cutter, or a pollinator

For the applications Robotics Plus partners with experts in each field. “You can attach a sprayer, a fertiliser spreader, a cutter, or a pollinator. We don’t want to make all those applications but we can automate them. But in the case of non-existing technology – like picking apples or kiwifruit – we create that solution from scratch.”

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Founders Alistair Scarfe (left) and Steven Saunders with an unmanned ground vehicle. Photo: Robotics Plus
Founders Alistair Scarfe (left) and Steven Saunders with an unmanned ground vehicle. Photo: Robotics Plus

Smaller tasks in broadacre

In broadacre the UGV’s of Robotics Plus could play a role in carrying out smaller tasks in the future. “Broadacre is very much dominated by the big players like John Deere, New Holland and Trimble”, says Mr Saunders. “They are all working on big automated solutions. We are more interested in smaller tasks in broadacre that big machines can’t do. Scouting for example. And robots can do soil and nutrient readings or take samples. Or you can have drones flying over broadacre fields, recognising a small pest outbreak and then let a robot deal with this small infestation.”

Specialty crops market

At the moment Robotics plus is focusing on the specialty crops market. “That’s an area, where there has not been enough attention for. Now that labour is becoming a global issue, from the perspective of availability and cost, this market is very interesting for us.” The commercial release of the UGV is planned in late 2021.

A robot in an orchard has to deal with sun, rain, mud, long grass, it has to identify a grape vine or a kiwifruit vine, it is very complicated

According to Mr Saunders new projects take a lot of money and time because of the complexity of different environments. “That’s one of the biggest challenges. A robot in a factory knows what’s coming, but a robot in an orchard has to deal with sun, rain, mud, long grass, it has to identify a grape vine or a kiwifruit vine, it is very complicated.”

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The fruit picker enabled the company to demonstrate that it could build an autonomous vehicle that was able to navigate through an orchard and harvest fruit. - Photo: Robotics Plus
The fruit picker enabled the company to demonstrate that it could build an autonomous vehicle that was able to navigate through an orchard and harvest fruit. - Photo: Robotics Plus

In the near future Robotics Plus would like to put together a global consortium of farmers, producers and industry bodies. “If you got the biggest asparagus growers in the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Europe to collaborate on harvesting for example, you could see some new technologies really being developed out”, says Mr Saunders.

Steven Saunders is himself a New Zealand grower and owner of a large kiwifruit packhouse with 30 years of experience in the horticulture industry “Back in 2008 I was looking at how technology could play a role in the future of horticulture”, Mr Saunders explains. “That’s when I found my co-founder Dr Alistair Scarfe. I supported him through his PhD for five years, developing an autonomous vehicle that could pick kiwifruit.”

Fruit harvesting robot

The fruit picker enabled the company to demonstrate that it could build an autonomous vehicle that was able to navigate through an orchard and harvest fruit. Mr Saunders: “We have not yet commercialised our fruit harvesting robot. At the moment other companies are focusing on this.”

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Cooperation with Yamaha

May 2018. In the same year Robotics Plus received a total of USD$ 10 million investment funds from Japan’s Yamaha Motor Co. to support further growth plans. “They also bring years and years of design and manufacturing experience,” Mr Saunders explains. “Some of the technology in our robots has been manufactured by Yamaha. We adopt a very collaborative model.”

Robotics Plus has a team of more than 60 people, with 80% being specialist in their field. The robots are manufactured in the factory of the company in Whakamarama, a horticultural area of New Zealand, about 200 kilometres south of Auckland.

The company has recently been named in the THRIVE Top 50, an annual ranking of leading global agtech companies. It was the only New Zealand company to make the 2020 Top 50 ranking and just one of five companies featured in the Robotics & Automation category.

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Next year Robotics Plus is expecting to have the Aporo apple packer commercially ready for other fruit. Photo: Robotics Plus
Next year Robotics Plus is expecting to have the Aporo apple packer commercially ready for other fruit. Photo: Robotics Plus

Growers embrace apple packer robot

The Aporo apple packer of Robotics Plus (see video below) has been adopted by growers in the US, France, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Since the introduction of the apple packer in 2018, 51 of these robots have been installed.
New Zealand’s Robotics Plus has recently entered the UK market and installed Aporo apple packers in packhouses of large UK companies Adrian Scripps and Prime Produce.
The Aporo apple packer can put away 120 apples per minute, the same as two people would do. But this robot can do it 24 hours a day. “It doesn’t get tired and the fruit gets fewer bruises, even at top speed,” says co-founder Mr Saunders. The apple packer is said to have better fruit presentation and softer handling than humans. Robotics Plus was the first company to achieve dynamic recognition of apple orientation and trays.
“I spoke with the CEO of a company that has an Aporo apple packer installed the other night”, Mr Saunders says. “They are seeing savings of up to 40% on production costs.” Mr Saunders calls these savings significant.
The apple packer was Robotics Plus’s first commercial product. “We were looking for something that was likely to get early grower adoption,” says Mr Saunders. “A pain point in an industry, where we could prove our technology.”
The New Zealand company was interested in building an apple packer because it could avoid the high costs of labour. “Those dull boring dirty and dangerous tasks that can be done by robots, that’s what we were focusing on,” Mr Saunders says.
He emphasises that the cost and availability of labour is a global problem. “We saw great opportunities in Europe and the US as well. And we partnered with Global Pac Technologies, a joint venture between New Zealand’s Jenkins Group Limited and US based Van Doren Sales Inc.“
Robotics Plus is now testing the apple packer in New Zealand with stone fruit. “We can move into multiple fruit crops because of our modular approach”, Mr Saunders explains. “Into avocados or mangoes. Apples are just the start for us. Next year we are expecting to have the apple packer commercially ready for other fruit.”

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