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Ripe Robotics starts trials with fruit picking robot Eve

Australian company Ripe Robotics has recently started commercial trials with the third generation of its automated fruit harvester. “We think we have the right design”, says co-founder Hunter Jay.

Ripe Robotics was founded two years ago. “We were looking for problems that could be solved with new technology, but hadn’t been solved yet”, Hunter Jay says. “Fruit picking was among the clearest of those. Computer technology got to the point where it could recognise fruit and tell how ripe it is. Field robotics were getting cheaper. We thought we could combine this to develop a machine that could pick fruit fully automatically.”

Commercial trials

Ripe Robotics has recently started commercial trials with its third generation robot harvester. “We are among the first in Australia to get this far”, Jay points out. “There are only a few university projects and some companies that are doing research.”

The company has developed its latest robot Eve for trials in the Goulburn Valley and Griffith. “After our proof of concept and our second test robot, called Clive, we are now in the stage of further improving Eve, the robot that will be commercial. We think we have the right design”, Mr Jay says.

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The company has developed its latest robot Eve for trials in the Goulburn Valley and Griffith. - Photo: Ripe Robotics
The company has developed its latest robot Eve for trials in the Goulburn Valley and Griffith. - Photo: Ripe Robotics

Neural network enables Eve to learn

The new robot has its own electric drive system and can crawl easily down a row of fruit trees. A camera takes pictures of the trees, which allows Eve to assess if the fruit is ripe. “We check from all different angles”, Jay emphasises.

With more data going through its deep neural network, Eve will get even better in time. Jay: “We have a person monitoring Eve all the time. If she is not sure what to decide, this person will tell her what to do. Eve remembers this and should be able to do the same thing by herself next time.”

Apples and oranges

Ripe Robotics’ latest robot is capable of picking apples and oranges. It works with a suction tube that goes all the way into the bin. So far it has been picking the apple varieties Pink Lady, Gala, Granny Smith and Modi.

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Eve is able to do its fruit picking in most weather conditions, day and night. - Photo: Ripe Robotics
Eve is able to do its fruit picking in most weather conditions, day and night. - Photo: Ripe Robotics

Jay says the trials are going well. “We‘ve been able to build a machine that can pick fruit without bruising. It can reach all the fruit in the trees. We‘ve done our trials with apples successfully and are now moving into oranges in a month or two. But we have been picking plums and stone fruit too.”

Farmers can eventually just hire us as they can hire human fruit pickers

And Eve is able to do its fruit picking in most weather conditions, day and night. “Maybe if it’s really hailing, we would put a tarp over it”, Jay explains. Ripe Robotics takes care of transport. The company will deliver Eve at an orchard and take it away and the end of the fruit season.

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Charged per bin

The company charges fruit growers per bin. A bin can hold about 380 kgs of apples and 420 kgs of oranges. “Farmers can eventually just hire us as they can hire human fruit pickers”, Jay says. “Our price will be comparable to normal pickers. When hired we just have to pick the fruit that we are asked to. We will do the set up and the monitoring. ”

Eve is a small unit and growers can have multiple robots working in the orchard. The speed of a robot should be about the same as a human picker. “We are working towards a speed of 2 to 3 hours per bin”, Jay explains. “But the advantage of a robot is that it can work 24/7 and a person has to take breaks.”

Data and analytics

In the longer term data and analytics will play a bigger role in the work of the fruit picking robot, Jay expects. “Eventually, because we take so many pictures, growers will know exactly where the fruit is growing, when it is getting ripe, if there is any disease detected or if trees are not getting enough water. And robots will be able to tell the grower when it is a good time to pick a block. Robots will be able to analyse the orchard before the picking season.”

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Ripe Robotics CEO and co-founder Hunter Jay: "We've been able to build a machine that can pick fruit without bruising. It can reach all the fruit in the trees." - Photo Ripe Robotics
Ripe Robotics CEO and co-founder Hunter Jay: "We've been able to build a machine that can pick fruit without bruising. It can reach all the fruit in the trees." - Photo Ripe Robotics

A lot of interest

So far the interest of growers has been good. Jay: “We are based in Shepparton on the orchards and the farmer here has been really fantastic. We have had a lot of interest, even from growers on the west coast of the United States. We‘re now focusing on getting the machine running reliable enough, so we can expand in a commercial way.”

During the trials the team of Ripe Robotics is continually picking fruit with Eve and upgrading the machine. The aim is to scale up the production of the robot during 2022. “We might even do some demonstrations in Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand and in Washington State in the United States. In 2023 we should have a lot of them in the field”, Jay says.

Ripe Robotics is still fundraising and talking to venture capitalists and interested investors to raise AUS $ 450,000 to demonstrate commercial viability.

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Growers can have multiple robots working in the orchard. - Photo Ripe Robotics
Growers can have multiple robots working in the orchard. - Photo Ripe Robotics

‘We will always find it difficult to find people’

Fifth generation fruit grower Mitchell McNab of HV McNab and Son near Shepparton, one of the growers taking part in the trials of Ripe Robotics, says his company has been relying mostly on backpackers picking the fruit of its orchards in the past. But recently growers have found it difficult to get enough people to pick their fruit. Backpackers are rare because of closed borders. The state of Victoria was even offering an AUS $ 2500 cash bonus this picking season to lure Australian workers onto fruit and vegetable farms. This helped growers to get some people in the field.
However, McNab thinks labour shortages will remain a problem. “With our border closures backpackers are not arriving in the country anymore”, he explains. “We are now dependent on Australian labour to harvest our crops. But we can’t utilise this very well because it is not a consistent workforce.“
The grower from Shepparton says robotic harvesters can eventually be a good solution for the labour shortage. “We will always find it difficult to find people doing the manual labour. Harvesting fruit is quite hard work. Robotics will be able to find other ways for us to pick the fruit, with greater efficiency.“
Growers need a reliable solution, also because fruit is a perishable product, he emphasises. “We have to harvest the fruit within a certain window. Otherwise the fruit can spoil or we cannot get it to the market in time.“
McNab expects technology will eventually enable Australian growers to compete with other countries with a lower cost of production. He points out that the labour costs in Australia are among the highest in the world. Labour makes up 60% of the cost of the fruit, he says. “Robotics will make us more competitive on the world’s stage.”

Also read: 13 innovators to accelerate harvest automation

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