In a world first, a team from Central Queensland University (CQU) has built an automated mango harvester prototype. In a trial on a farm in Yeppoon, the prototype recorded 75 per cent efficiency in automatically identifying and picking fruit in view.

CQU professor Kerry Walsh told Food & Drink Business that the auto-harvester represents a significant departure from traditional bulk harvesters, which knock all the fruit from a tree to the ground and are suitable for processing applications where external damage isn’t an issue.

“This is more targeted to the fresh fruit market, but if you can lower the cost far enough, it also supports harvesting for juicing or other secondary markets as well.

“This machine is trying to pick one fruit at a time without damaging it. Pack houses have been mechanised, and taking that technology out into the field is where things are at. Technology like machine vision and mechatronics can be used in the field to selectively pick a fruit according to size and colour,” he says.

Walsh added that the technology would help address Australia’s issues with the high cost and low availability of labour.

“We effectively depend on overseas labour like backpackers for the tree fruit harvest. The harvest is a short period of time, and you’ve got to gear up to find and manage people, chase up visas and superannuation accounts, it’s a management hassle.

“If you have an auto-harvester, it’s like a pack line – fewer staff numbers, but a more technical labour force,” he says.

Yeppoon’s Groves Grown Fruit hosted the trial, and farmer Ian Groves said he was excited by its potential.

“The machinery identifying and counting fruit in the orchard turned out to be within just a few per cent of the actual number of fruit in the entire block last year,” Groves says.

“That technology is also able to measure the size range of that fruit and so knowing how much fruit is in that block, knowing when it’s going to be mature and knowing the size of the fruit, means we can schedule our workforce, order the right number of cartons, and the size of the inserts going into those cartons. For Groves, the technology could be a "real game changer" for his farm and the entire industry. 

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