Apple drones are now reality… in orchards cultivating fruit

drone apple

Drone enthusiasts dreaming of the day when Tim Cook and his band of Mac and iPhone innovators produce an equally slick UAV may assuage their impatience (a little) by reading about a veritable apple drone already at work around select orchards of the world.

Israeli startup Tevel Aerobotics Technologies is marketing a tethered drone system that takes the toil out of apple picking at a time when farmers are finding laborers willing to undertake the exacting burden harder to find, and funds to pay salaries ever tighter. The company’s solution to cultivators facing that situation is the Flying Autonomous Robots (FAR) platform, which fast and effectively performs cultivation work in orchards using artificial intelligence-enhanced tech capable of differentiating fruit ripe for picking from those needing more time on the tree.

Though the system may lack a catchy name like iPlucker or AirPick, Tevel’s apple drone innovation does mark another step forward in agricultural tech. While existing aerial and robotic applications facilitate and improve planting, pollination, treatment, and cultivation work, FAR adds a new dimension to the harvesting process. 

Central to that is a ground vehicle that slowly advances between rows of fruit trees while connected to a series of tethered drones whose arms and articulated grippers pick mature apples. The grabby quadcopters deposit those on QR coded spots on a tarp below, which feeds the plucked goodies into crates. The AI-enhanced program running the platform identifies and directs the drones only toward apples ready for picking ­– evaluation which under previous robotic systems usually requires on-site human appreciation.

Because the drones move along with the creeping ground vehicle, the latter can provide virtually unlimited power to the tethered UAVs, permitting them to operate at night as well as day. Tevel, which provides all equipment, management, and oversight of the FAR service to farms, says the platform can be monitored using GPS and mobile apps – the latter of which makes the entire invention a bit more Apple-esque.

Automation of the harvesting process will not only involve less toil and cost than hiring humans, Tevel says. It also fulfills a need being created by evolving global trends. 

The company says the world’s population is expected to increase 40% by 2050, which will require a doubling of fruit and other agricultural production to keep pace. That is expected to expand the area of farmed land by 100% to 346 million acres at. At the same time, however, Tevel says the already decreasing number of field workers will fall to half of today’s level. Unless tech steps in to fill that void, the company says, increased yields combined with insufficient labor will lead to 10% of all ripe fruit worldwide to go unpicked – representing waste and lost income equivalent to the European Union’s annual consumption.

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