They're trying to mechanize the orchard at Washington State University's Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems.
A demonstration of the tools of the future from the CPAAS showcased a wide array of futuristic concepts and tools growers may have available in the next generation. Mechanical assist technologies are under study for apples and pears, hand-held shake and catch systems are being probed for cherry orchards, and mechanical thinning systems are a high priority as grower concern grows over labor costs and availability.
A light interception measurement project in sweet cherries is attempting to enhance the sun penetration onto fruit for improved quality. Earlier studies in hedgerow orchard configurations demonstrated that more sunlight inside the canopy enhanced yields as well. The WSU study is focusing on the light interception in cherry trees in two architectural configurations: those trained to a vertical upright fruiting offshoot design, and Y-trellising
Measuring the light penetration, the researchers use a mobile sensor system, consisting of a light sensing bar mounted in front of an ATV that can travel down orchard rows.
Results have been promising, says lead researcher Jingjin Zhang. For both of the architecture types, light interception is indicated to be lowest at noon. Also, the system determined that the optimal measuring time is 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
All of which gives an orchardist more information on the light penetration he is dealing with in the trees.
In a mechanical harvesting probe for fresh market sweet cherries, another study is designed to develop a machine that can save growers labor costs and provide harvest capability even if worker forces dwindle.
The incentive for developing a cherry harvester is high, since the crop is considered to be a high profit commodity, and acreage is expanding.
A machine harvester would also help reduce the potential of injury to workers who climb ladders to hand pick the crop.
Washington, the largest sweet cherry producer in the nation, is pivotal for development of the harvester, which many other production regions of the U.S. are watching closely. Labor can add up to about half of a grower's total cost using manual worker harvest.
To increase efficiencies and remain competitive in the market, growers must seek alternatives to current manual operations, notes research leader Jianfeng Zhou.
Results of mechanical harvesting have been encouraging, he adds, with machines achieving 10 times greater efficiency over hand picking.
The center is delving into many other precision projects as well, including a way for pickers to be measured for each load they deliver to a bin using wrist bands read by a computer scanner; platform technology which can improve the safety of pruning and thinning in the orchard, and site-specific wireless irrigation control systems.
There is work underway on a robotic hop twining machine, a solid-set canopy deliver system, and studies of the role of genomics, genetics and breeding in development of efficient mechanized solutions in the orchard.
Much of the work is focused in the WSU Sunrise Research Orchard near Wenatchee, the nation's largest apple production region.