SwarmFarm and Green Atlas develop thinning robot for apple orchards

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Australian companies SwarmFarm Robotics and Green Atlas will soon start trials with a robot for autonomous flower counting and precision thinning operations in apple orchards. Their corporation is set to revolutionise the current industry approach to thinning operations, says Steven Scheding, Director of Green Atlas. “It will increase the quality of yields and that’s where additional dollars come from. It will also reduce costly manual labour.”

Commercially available next season
SwarmFarm and Green Atlas believe the system will be commercially available next Australian apple season, starting October 2020. The companies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to confirm their partnership. According to the Australian firms, the new robot will put cutting edge technology into the hands of growers and will be a first of its kind in tree crops globally.

Whole block management
Current practice within the orchard industry is limited to whole block management, which fails to account for natural variation that exists within each block. With the blanket approach of block management to a highly variable environment, thinning results do not always achieve the optimum rate.

Autonomous flower mapping system
By developing an autonomous flower mapping system, combined with precision ‘tree by tree’ spraying operations, SwarmFarm and Green Atlas make it possible to uniquely manage spray applications to accurately target variation within a block.

“With our system, we are imaging every tree multiple times”, says Mr Scheding. “We therefore know what the potential crop load is of any tree in an orchard. This can be done on any scale. We have recently scanned 6,000 hectares of trees for one customer.”

Increased fruit quality
The new system will increase grower confidence in chemical thinning applications. According to SwarmFarm and Green Atlas it will lead to increased fruit quality and reduce costly hand thinning operations later in the season.

Steven Scheding, Director of Green Atlas:

If you can get more effective thinning at the flower stage, you can knock some off this cost of the manual thinning

“I believe that in the apple industry the thinning by hand is about 50 percent of the overall cost”, explains Mr Scheding. “If you can get more effective thinning at the flower stage, you can knock some off this cost of the manual thinning.”

In this partnership, Green Atlas will focus on their commercial flower mapping system. SwarmFarm will continue to develop and validate technology to assist growers with making better agronomic management decisions for crop load.

Variable rate thinning
This will ultimately result in a system that allows for variable timing and variable rate thinning to specific zones within a block, with an autonomous thinning technology solution, including flower and tree canopy vision systems, decision support software tools and variable rate spraying technology.

SwarmFarm has confirmed that commercial trials are underway to ensure the developed technology is agronomically proven in commercial orchards. That way the benefits of the robot can be demonstrated from a commercial aspect. Green Atlas will focus on their commercial flower counting system to provide accurate and timely flower maps into the final solution.

Fast track technology
For SwarmFarm the partnership with Green Atlas is an opportunity to offer additional value and fast track the technology into the hands of Australian apple growers, says Andrew Bate, CEO of SwarmFarm Robotics. “Ultimately, SwarmFarm and Green Atlas have complementary technologies and we will work together to integrate Green Atlas’s core product, Cartographer into SwarmFarm robots via SwarmConnect.”

Lease to growers directly
Mr Scheding says the exact cost of the system for growers are not known yet. “But growers are willing to pay per hectare and we will effectively come in under that cost.” There will be several options, he says. “We can lease to growers directly or we can lease to partners that deliver services on our behalf. We aim to be always on the ground with growers, so we can continue to learn and develop the product as we go along...”