In a world-first, T&G Global is using a robotic harvester for a commercial apple harvest. It is the culmination of four years of working with US-based technology partner Abundant Robotics, which T&G’s parent company BayWa AG invested in two years ago as part of its strategy to expand digitisation across its agribusiness.

T&G Global Chief Operating Officer Peter Landon-Lane said the company is delighted to have reached this significant milestone in the evolution of the global apple industry and for T&G’s home operations in New Zealand to be at the forefront.

“Automation enables us to continue to scale to meet increasing global demand for food, in the face of current and future labour market challenges. We’ve been actively driving towards this for the past few years, including preparing our orchards to be robot-ready.”

“This is in addition to the investment our parent company BayWa AG has made in Abundant Robotics, reflecting confidence in the technology, which has been developed with the apple industry from the outset,” said Mr Landon-Lane.

To prepare for the launch of the robotic harvester high-density planting and specific pruning methods have been implemented at T&G’s Hawkes Bay orchards.

Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere said that the company evolved from its research-based origins after delivering a proof of concept prototype in 2015 and approached the commercialisation of the technology as a global opportunity from the start. “Developing an automated apple harvester requires solving a number of complex technical problems in parallel, from visually identifying harvestable fruit and physically manipulating it to pick without bruising, to safely navigating the orchard itself.

Mr Landon-Lane added that it would be some years before all of the company’s orchards are harvested in this way, but this first harvest is an exciting step forward. “Apple-picking is tough physical work and it’s seasonal. Robotic technology complements the work our people do with its ability to pick a large proportion of the fruit, much of it at the upper levels of the trees, reducing the physical demands of the work for our people as well as boosting productivity. This will enable us to continue the exciting growth that is being achieved in the apple industry, without being constrained by the current shortages of labour.”