Robotic harvester gets thumbs up from asparagus industry

The development of a robotic asparagus harvester has been welcomed by growers, as they continue to face problems finding seasonal workers.

A funding application is to be made to the Government to help commercialise the machine, which was recently endorsed by the New Zealand Asparagus Council at their AGM.

The harvester is a joint project between University of Waikato engineering students, and Robotics Plus Ltd in Tauranga.

Using sophisticated technolgy, the machine can spot a spear, line it up and cut it off at ground level. 

Like many sectors of the horticulture industry, attracting seasonal labour for harvesting crops is a challenge for asparagus growers.

A prototype of the harvester was displayed at the Fieldays at Mystery Creek in June.
A prototype of the harvester was displayed at the Fieldays at Mystery Creek in June. Photo credit: Supplied/Waikato University

The harvester has been in development since 2015, and a prototype was showcased at the Mystery Creek Fieldays in June.

CEO of Robotics Plus Dr Matt Glenn said the machine was one of a number of projects designed to power up productivity in food and fibre value chains.

"Harvesting is often a very repetitive and difficult manual job and labour is becoming increasingly scarce," he said.

"In many growing industries we are seeing produce left on the trees or being ploughed back into the land as labour becomes more scarce; automation of harvesting is the only way to resolve these issues," said Dr Glenn.

The project also won funding from Callaghan Innovation to support a PhD student at Waikato University to develop the machine.

There are around 40 asparagus growers in New Zealand, and the harvest season starts in September.