As an apple fan (the delicious fruit, not the horrible-tasting technology company), I take it for granted that apples will be available to me at affordable prices whenever and wherever I want them. This is because I’m a clueless consumer, who had no idea that in 2012, 4.2 million apples were picked in the United States. By hand.
Apple picking is a task that seems like it should be easy to automate: The environment is semistructured, and you’re dealing with objects that are nearly homogenous. At the same time, though, those nearly homogenous objects are often occluded by leaves and branches, and grasping them quickly and delicately enough to compete with humans workers isn’t easy. Robot vision and manipulation have recently advanced just enough to start making autonomous apple harvesting a commercial success, and there are few companies (including FFRobotics) already working in the space.
Last week, SRI International announced a new Silicon Valley spin-off company, Abundant Robotics, which is trying to automate orchard harvests with robotics. From what we can tell, they’re using a sort of horizontally mounted delta robot with a vacuum attachment for gentle high-speed fruit picking, resulting in the cleanest, shiniest apples you’ve ever experienced.