Kiwifruit-picking robots have to be able to move around an orchard finding fruit and then work out the size and shape of each one, so they don't damage the product. It's a tricky job. Photo supplied.

Robots which can pick kiwifruit without damaging them, and put apples into trays with the colour side up are a step closer, with the announcement that Tauranga-based agricultural robot company Robotics Plus has secured investment from Yamaha Motor’s venture investment arm.

Robotics Plus, the sort of company that features frequently in innovation award finalist lists, says the new capital will speed up expansion of the robot maker’s team and give it a partner with a global footprint and deep knowledge of manufacturing.

Chair Steve Saunders won’t say how much Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley has invested, but is excited about the opportunity to work with the multinational bike and motor maker in developing the technology.

“Alongside the investment we’ve got a partnership agreement that allows us to have conversations around being able to work with Yamaha Motors and look at some of our technologies.”

Using robots in horticulture goes some way to solving the perennial problem of attracting and retaining seasonal workers for picking and packing. But developing a robot that picks kiwifruit or sorts apples is way harder than it sounds, largely because of the huge diversity of fruit size and shape, the fact products grow randomly on the plant, and are fragile.

“Unlike most automation within factories that deal with man-made parts, everything from item appearance, size, shape, position, etc. are inconsistent,” the company says. An apple-packing robot has to be able match a human’s ability to detect different apple varieties, colours, shapes and blemishes, while a kiwifruit picking robot has to be able to move around the orchard, find the kiwifruit on the vine, detect the dimensions of each fruit and pick it without damaging it.

Precision agriculture is one of seven areas Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Silicon Valley has identified for investment, alongside robotics, unmanned systems, and smart vehicles. 

Silicon Valley-based chief operations officer George Kellerman said the vertical integration of Robotics Plus was a selling point for the Yamaha unit as a potential investor, as was the Southern Hemisphere location, allowing for year-round research and development in a seasonal industry.

“Part of working with Robotics Plus is to learn, to get that experience,” he said.

Robotics Plus’ mulitpurpose orchard robot should be able to move around an orchard by itself, stopping whenever it needs to perform a particular task. Photo supplied

Both Kellerman and Saunders talk up the level of New Zealand government support, through entities such as New Zealand Trade & Enterprise and Callaghan Innovation, in drumming up international interest in Kiwi firms.

Saunders says attracting multinational companies as partners is important in developing the domestic talent pipeline, where R&D and the building of intellectual property can be kept local, while leveraging global networks to build businesses of scale.

“We don’t have scale in New Zealand, so if we’re going to scale we have to be globally relevant. We have great capability and great young minds,” he said. “Part of this has been an objective for me to prove that we can attract multi-nationals to New Zealand which are interested in the technology developed here and we can create the environments for our young talents coming out of university into global high-tech companies that have an R&D base in New Zealand.”


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