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WSU partners with Netherlands, Washington growers to improve orchard robotics, automation

A robotic pounder
In development at WSU's Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems, robotic pruners, pickers, and other high-tech automated tools are among objectives of the newly announced international collaboration.

Washington State University scientists are joining forces with researchers, fruit growers, and technology companies in the Netherlands and Washington State to solve major tree fruit challenges through orchard automation and robotics.

On Feb. 3, 2021, André-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, joined representatives from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Netherland’s Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Wageningen University & Research, and other partners in a virtual signing of the Fruit Orchard of the Future Collaboration Agreement.

The agreement helps establish a public-private consortium speeding new tree fruit technologies using an industry-developed concept called Next Fruit 4.0. It’s part of a broader AgFoodTech collaboration between the Netherlands, California, and Washington State, which aims to get innovations to market faster and meet high-level goals in health, sustainability, and prosperity.

Automation and robotics could help tree fruit growers in the U.S. and the Netherlands address the challenges from an increasingly hard-to-find orchard labor force, as well as greater demand for sustainability, environmental health, and food safety.

“Our College is proud and excited to partner with Washington tree fruit growers and our counterparts in the Netherlands in bringing new technologies to fruition,” Wright said. “Globally, producers face many of the same hurdles. The practical solutions being developed through this international coalition hold promise for more robust, healthy, and efficient industries in both countries.”

“Technology implementation into orchards has to accelerate to enable our state’s tree fruit industry to remain viable and prosper into the next decade,” said Ines Hanrahan, Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission executive director.

A Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission-led group, including participants from Washington State University visits the Wageningen Research Center’s Proeftuin Randwijk orchard in the Netherlands (WTFRC photo).

“We view international public-private partnerships, such as the Orchard of the Future collaboration, as essential building blocks to successfully develop orchards for the future,” added Commission Chair Jim Doornink.

Additional partners to the agreement include the Dutch Fruit Growers Association, Dutch technological association FME, Oregon State University, and more than a dozen Dutch and U.S. companies and organizations.

The Fruit Orchard of the Future collaboration aims to connect universities in both nations for joint programs, create a network of local field labs and testing grounds, set up exchanges for education and research, connect companies and growers, and build access to funding.

Participating scientists will develop prototypes including a robot for pruning and harvesting pears, a precision sprayer for fruit crops, sensors and algorithms to collect data on apples and pears, and decision models for apples and pears based on collected data and expert knowledge.

The project draws on the knowledge and resources of WSU Extension, WSU’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center (TFREC) at Wenatchee Wash., the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center (IAREC) and Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) at Prosser, Wash., and WSU’s AgWeather Network.

Closeup of Manoj Karkee
Manoj Karkee

WSU Associate Professor Manoj Karkee, a Prosser-based specialist in field robotics and automation, said the partnership will help build expertise and knowledge from a variety of perspectives, while making the team of scientists more competitive for U.S. and European research funding.

“A range of geographic and environmental variations provided by the collaboration will also help the team maximize experimental window for specific crops and cropping systems,” Karkee said. “Such a wider infrastructure helps ensure that the tools, technologies and systems we develop will be versatile, reliable, and practically adoptable.”

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