Watch: World's first commercial robotic apple harvest underway

A Hawke's Bay orchard has become the first in the world to use a robotic harvester for a commercial apple harvest.

T&G Global apples - including the premium, Kiwi-bred varieties Jazz and Envy - are grown in 14 countries and sold in more than 60 countries.

The company (orginally Turners and Growers) has been working with US-based technology partner Abundant Robotics, which T&G's parent company BayWa AG invested in two years ago as part of its strategy to expand digitisation across its agribusiness.

T&G Global chief operating officer Peter Landon-Lane said the use of the harvester was a significant milestone in the evolution of the global apple industry and he was delighted for T&G's home operations in New Zealand to be at the forefront.

"Automation enables us to continue to scale to meet increasing global demand for food, in the face of current and future labour market challenges," he said.

"We've been actively driving towards this for the past few years, including preparing our orchards to be robot-ready," Landon-Lane said.

"This is in addition to the investment our parent company BayWa AG has made in Abundant Robotics, reflecting confidence in the technology, which has been developed with the apple industry from the outset."

High-density planting and specific pruning methods have been implemented at T&G's Hawkes Bay orchards to make them suitable for Abundant Robotics' technology. 

Canopy innovation and trialling of different ways of achieving automation compatibility has been a feature of orchard expansion initiatives since 2017.

Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere said the company evolved from its research-based origins after delivering a proof of concept prototype in 2015 and approached the commercialisation of the technology as a global opportunity from the start.

"With T&G Global we are able to run a year-round development programme leveraging work with US apple growers and New Zealand orchards during the complementary northern and southern hemisphere harvesting seasons," he said.

"Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself," Steere said.

The Abundant Robotics technology is being used to pick a range of apple varieties including T&G's proprietary Jazz and Envy, which are destined for supermarket shelves in New Zealand and overseas. 

Robotic technology is being seen as one of the solutions to labour shortages in the horticulture sector.
Robotic technology is being seen as one of the solutions to labour shortages in the horticulture sector. Photo credit: Supplied

However Landon-Lane said it will be some years before all T&G orchards are harvested in this way.

"Apple-picking is tough, physical work and it's seasonal. Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity."

"This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labour."