Three high-tech superheroes made their presence known at this year’s Fieldays.
The University of Waikato (UoW) entered three of its horticultural robots in the Prototype category of the 2021 Fieldays Innovation Awards.
They included a robotic asparagus harvester, an autonomous grape vine pruner and a kiwifruit orchard survey robot.
The robots are collaborative projects involving students and academics from the School of Engineering and the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences in partnership with other academic institutions and businesses.
“Agritech is very important to solving problems,” says Dr Shen Hin Lim, senior lecturer in Mechatronics and Mechanical Engineering at UoW and chairperson of NZ Robotics Automation and Sensing (NZRAS).
“New Zealand is considered a world leader in agricultural innovation, and I believe that we can demonstrate that and have an edge using ag robots.”
Ag robots support the horticulture sector in a number of ways, automating some time-consuming tasks, enabling people to get on with other work and offering a sustainable solution to labour shortages. Technology also helps the agricultural industry to maintain high productivity, ensure safe, high-quality food products and minimise its environmental footprint.
Dr Lim leads the team who developed an asparagus harvester which will be on display in the Innovation Hub. The fully operational prototype was developed with the support of Callaghan Innovation, in collaboration with Robotics Plus Limited.
The asparagus harvester has a high-tech vision system that detects the asparagus spears, computes their base location, and if it detects that the spear is tall enough to harvest, uses a robotic arm to cut it as the robot passes over.
Another innovative robot at Fieldays this year is the MaaraTech Grape Vine Pruner, a transdisciplinary co-design project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE), including researchers from UoW, Robotics Plus, the University of Auckland, the University of Canterbury, Lincoln Agritech, University of Otago and Plant & Food Research.
Auckland University holds the contract for the five-year MaaraTech project, and UoW is subcontracted to focus on the hardware development and physical aspects of creating the technology.
Dr Benjamin McGuinness, a research and teaching fellow in mechanical engineering at UoW, says the robot’s cutting blade – dubbed “The barracuda” – has evolved over many iterations and modifications of commercial secateurs.
Its innovative design helps ensure wires are not cut by mistake.
“The design we’ve come up with has a series of slots in the anvil of the bottom blade. The idea is, the wire will fall into the slots but the cane is too big to fit in there, so the blade will cut the cane,” says Dr McGuinness.
The Orchard Survey Robot was funded by Zespri to advance innovation and research in the kiwifruit industry, to benefit growers.
It uses a variety of sensors to autonomously navigate around the orchard to capture information that can provide actionable insights to growers, says Nick Pickering, a systems engineering lecturer at UoW, who is leading the project.
It can be programmed to capture a wide range of data through the life cycle of kiwifruit growing.
“We’ll be initiating the research later in the year starting with flower counting and canopy cover, with plans to expand the collaboration into the areas of pest and disease detection, fruit estimation and plant structure,” says Pickering.
“The information from the robot will be used to support growers to make complex decisions to optimise fruit quality and quantity.”
The UoW has a reputation for innovation in mechatronics, which combines mechanical engineering with electronics.
“Robotics is a growth area world-wide,” says Dr Lim, who launched the mechatronic engineering programme at Waikato in 2019. “Mechatronics is something we are passionate about at Waikato, and we are creating some cutting-edge horticultural robots here.”