Fruit growers turn to robots to solve labour shortage

While no-one's quite sure what the future of automation holds, some people hope the robots will take over.

Growers who have been struggling with a labour shortage are turning to machines to make the most of a forecast boom in the horticulture industry this year.

The 'robotic apple packer' was developed just outside Tauranga, and it's now ready for packhouses across the globe.

The automated robot is the brainchild of start-up Robotics Plus. It's aimed at improving efficiency and providing apples of consistent quality. 

It does the work of two people, but Robotics Plus owner Alastair Sacrfe says it's not about replacing humans with machines, but rather solving a labour shortage.

"We've actually been talking to some packhouses in NZ that are saying 'we'd love to build a bigger packhouse or expand our facilities, but we just can't get that resource to help with that growth'."

The solution could be just months away. Five initial machines are being trialled in Nelson, with commercial production set for later this year. 

Robotics Plus has developed a machine that uses GPS technology to pollinate kiwifruit orchards.
Robotics Plus has developed a machine that uses GPS technology to pollinate kiwifruit orchards. Photo credit: Newshub.

Robotics Plus products are likely to have a big impact on orchards throughout New Zealand, but there's the potential for bigger business in places like the United States, where the apple market is 10-12 times bigger than it is here.

The products aren't restricted to apples - a tractor-like machine is being used to pollinate kiwifruit orchards. It's automated and uses the GPS co-ordinates of a chosen area to work its way through.

Robotics Plus is also developing an impresser machine to pick kiwifruit. To founder Steve Saunders, it's about more than just making machines.

"As we move into a 9.7bn population by 2050, we have to increase food production by 25 percent. Robotics will be one of those key areas in helping achieve that."

His ambitious goals don't stop there - Saunders hopes his company will be the pick of the bunch, becoming a billion-dollar business within five years.