The 2022 Virtual Orchard Meetup brought experts from across the country together to discuss the latest technological research designed to assist tree fruit growers. From robots for pruning and thinning to those which can detect and map diseases or predict the best branches to remove, today’s growers are on the cusp of working with tomorrow’s technology to reduce costs, increase efficiency and produce higher yields. Along with precision irrigation and spraying systems, and digitalized dashboards where all the information is integrated, orchard robots will be bringing enhanced sustainability to the industry in the not-too-distant future.

It may seem counterintuitive that robots and digitalized technology will assist farm laborers, not replace them. But with labor in short supply and increasingly expensive, can technology and farm laborers exist in a mutually beneficial relationship?

Ines Hanrahan of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission (WTFRC) said the goal of the organization has always been “to fund research to ultimately bring automation to tree fruit orchard. A lot of the specialty crops need hand-harvest right now, so it’s a problem for everybody,” and farmworkers should not be afraid of the emerging technology, but rather understand that they will be needed to work alongside it.

The technology will be beneficial to those working the orchards. It will reduce redundant, mundane manual labor, reduce the need for backbreaking work, even out the workflow so that there is year-round, steady employment opportunities (not only seasonal and frenetic activity) and will “create a more pleasurable work experience,” she said – one where humans are working and managing the orchard in a manner that is less stressful to themselves, the trees and the environment.

WTFRC has two smart orchards where technology has been implemented by willing growers. A variety of sensors have been put into service, so side-by-side comparisons can be made by researchers. The orchards can also be used for teaching others about the existing technology. Growers adapt best when they share real results with others, removing some of the fear and uncertainty of investing in new technology, so the test orchards are teaching orchards too.

“Ultimately, our goal is to bring digitalization to the orchard,” Hanrahan said. “We’re a lot further down the road than we were five years ago.”

Sensors to bring precision agriculture into the orchard, along with one integrated digital dashboard where growers can see relevant data when needed and make remote adjustments, rather than having multiple apps on different platforms, are two goals of WTRFC. Harvest robots are another technological advance the commission wants to see come to fruition. And they have. Harvest robots are no longer the thing of science fiction; they’re being put to work in orchards today.

Robots in the Orchard

Long He of the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center (FREC) has been working on orchard robotics. Robots have been engineered to assist with green thinning, pollination and crop load management.

“It’s very important to do crop load management at the right time,” He said. From branch pruning and reconstruction to flower detection, blossom thinning and artificial pollination, to green thinning, He’s research projects cover all aspects of crop load management.

Imaging in the field during dormant stages helps to identify where the buds are going to be with about 70% – 80% accuracy, He said. Deep learning technology can be used to identify individual flowers and flower clusters. Green fruit detection and fruit orientation mapping means precision robotic green fruit thinning can occur. Two robotic prototypes have been developed to help with pruning and thinning.

A robot has also been developed for precision blossom thinning. A camera detects flower clusters and a spray nozzle is aimed at the targeted clusters. Researchers have demonstrated that this approach can save more than 50% of the chemical thinner which otherwise would be utilized with conventional air blast sprayers. Prototypes for green fruit removal have also been developed and put to work and with the help of robotic arms, and can remove 90% of targeted fruits.

Automated precision irrigation using sensors and remote bots, as well as precision orchard spraying based on canopy density, are also being studied. These will help growers save water and labor, and can reduce drift, so chemical sprays are more efficient.

Yu Jiang of Cornell spoke of automated disease detection and severity, and orchard mapping robots which can provide growers with the data needed to target diseases and precisely apply chemicals in real time. The goal is to “provide such information for you to do the disease management in the field.”

Digitized mapping of orchard trees using a 3-D scanner allows detailed branch information to be seen. Understanding tree architecture helps estimate the optimal crop load and guides robotic pruning. The next step is simulation, to help understand what the effect will be on the crop and the trees if certain pruning cuts are made.

“If we cut the branches from different levels, or if we cut different branches, [understanding] how the apple tree will grow and how that will impact the apple fruit quality” is the goal, Jiang said.

Matthew Whiting works with precision and automated tree fruit technology at Washington State University. Whiting is a tree fruit physiologist and advocates for a whole systems approach when developing precision technology and automation for the orchard. Production, consumers and markets and distribution are all parts of the whole that have to be considered when automating the orchard, he said.

In one project, new cherry tree architecture has been developed to create orchards suited to mechanical harvesting. Mechanical harvesting in cherries means no stems, which then requires different sorting and packaging. And consumer marketing and education is needed so the fruit sells.

Whiting advised that scaleability of new technology is needed. Small farms can’t afford the cost of technology that larger farms might be able to absorb, and the technology needs to be scaled down in order for smaller growers to benefit. Creating machinery that has interchangeable arms, so that pruning, thinning, spraying and harvest could all be done with one piece of equipment would be ideal, Whiting said, rather than needing multiple pieces of single-use equipment.

Compact fruiting wall tree architecture, harvesting platforms rather than ladders and other new methods of orchard management are the wave of the future. Growers should not plant another orchard without considering how it will fit into the new paradigm, Whiting advised.

While some orchard technology, including drones, sensors, imaging systems and mechanical harvesters, is available to be implemented on a commercial scale, adaptation has been limited despite the research showing the efficiency and cost savings of such systems. Existing orchards are not suitable for some of the equipment, technology isn’t always consistently reliable and the skills needed to use the new equipment are often not familiar to growers. Upfront costs can be prohibitive, and not everyone is comfortable being an early adaptor.

But one thing seems clear: Orchard technology is advancing. Tree fruit growers will have plenty of digital, precision options for monitoring every aspect of their operation, and robotic equipment is poised to become commonplace in the near future.