Young Farmer of the Year backing fruit-picking robot
Australia’s Young Farmer of the Year says robots can play a key role in tackling worker shortages and labour costs for fruit growers, and is helping a Victorian startup develop an autonomous apple-picking machine to do just that.
33-year-old Mitchell McNab was one of the standout winners at the Australian Farmer of the Year Awards this week, recognised for his dedication to the prosperity of the industry and finding innovative solutions to managing his family’s orchard in Shepparton, Victoria.
After completing a Nuffield Farming Scholarship looking into the use of robotics in horticulture in 2016, Mr McNab reached out to Ripe Robotics to offer the orchard for testing and trialling their new apple-picking robot prototype – Eve.
Years of hard work later, Eve has now started picking apples fully autonomously and is one step closer to full commercialisation.
Ripe Robotics CEO and Co-founder, Hunter Jay, said trialling the technology on McNab Orchards had been crucial to its development.
“The season’s finished now, but we’re hoping to be trialling again with Mitch next year,” Mr Jay said.
“He is very easy to work with. He's been great letting us test as needed on his crops, even leaving some fruit up for us to test past the end of the season.
“Mitch is a hardworking, friendly and very capable grower, and I'm really happy he's been recognised as the Young Farmer of the Year.”
Mr Jay said the reliance on traditional handpicking is resulting in fruit being damaged or left on trees.
“It’s a very slow, inefficient process that requires each worker to be trained to avoid bruising the fruit,” he said.
“It’s not surprising that less people are putting their hand up to do it, especially because the work is only available for half the year.
“Farmers used to rely on workers coming from Pacific Island nations like Samoa, but a lot of those governments aren’t allowing that now because they want to keep their skilled workers in the country.
“So even the people that do want to help out aren’t able to come and do it.
“Farmers spend months growing this fruit, and just can’t get people to harvest it. It’s a big, big problem.”
The Ripe Robotics solution picks apples, plums, peaches, and nectarines with a specially designed suction cup, using artificial intelligence to analyse each piece of fruit for size, colour and quality.
The company is raising a $2.8 million seed investment round to expand its commercial fleet to four machines^.
Mr Jay said they have two signed contracts worth up to $5 million per year, and expressions of interest from dozens of other growers in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Europe.
“We’ve now got the prototype machine autonomously picking a significant amount, so the next step is scaling up the fleet to the point of commercial viability,” he said.
“With much less funding than our competitors, we have reached a similar stage with a machine that can be built and operated at a fraction of the price.
“We’re just at the beginning of our journey, so we’re looking for investors to come onboard who are as passionate as us about where artificial intelligence can take the industry.”
Mr McNab agrees that innovative solutions are needed to ensure the long-term viability of the horticulture industry.
“Robotics could play a significant role in the future of horticulture, from the plantings right through to the packing sheds," he said.
"With labour an increasing issue in rural and regional areas, our industry needs to look at options that can support growth and sustainability, and robotics could be it."
^This investment opportunity is only for professional and sophisticated investors as defined in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). The content of this opportunity is intended for use by persons having professional experience in matters relating to investments and must not be acted or relied upon by any other person including, without limitation, retail clients.
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