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Self navigating peach robot design project

The peach industry is big business in the state of Georgia, with over 130 million pounds of peaches produced each year with a farm gate value of over $71 million.

However, their cultivation is both complex and a manually-intensive process. In a project designd to solve this problem, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has developed an intelligent robot designed to handle the human-based tasks of thinning and pruning peach trees, which could result in significant cost savings for peach farms in Georgia.

The robot uses a LIDAR sensing system and highly-specialised GPS technology to self-navigate through peach orchards and steer clear of obstacles. The LIDAR system determines distances by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the amount of time it takes for the laser beam to reflect back, while the GPS technology measures locations as specific as a fraction of an inch.

Once at a peach tree, the robot uses an embedded 3D camera to determine which peaches need to be removed and grabs the peaches using a claw-like device, known as an end effector, that is connected to the end of its arm.

"Most people are familiar with the harvesting of fruit and picking it up at the market," said Ai-Ping Hu, a GTRI senior research engineer who is leading the robot design project. "But there's actually a lot more that gets done before that point in the cultivation cycle."

The robot addresses two key components of the peach cultivation cycle: tree pruning and tree thinning.

Pruning refers to the selective removal of branches prior to the spring growing season, which typically occurs from mid-May to early August, and serves many purposes – including exposing more interior surface areas of the fruit trees to sunlight and removing undesired older growth to enable new growth to better thrive. Thinning, meanwhile, is when small or undeveloped peaches, known as peachlets, are removed from peach trees to allow for bigger and better peaches to grow, Hu explained.

There are no robots on the market that have been able to fully replace humans in the peach cultivation industry due to peach orchards' unstructured environments, which includes unpredictable weather, uneven terrain, and trees' different shapes and sizes.

Current efforts to automate the harvesting of peaches and other specialty crops so far have not been as successful as advancements in commodity crop automation, where machines can collect hundreds of acres of the good at a time. Commodity crops include items such as corn, wheat, and soybeans.

"Specialty crops are still very reliant on manual labor," Hu said, "because everything is so individualized and so unique, it's really been difficult to automate."

To address these unique issues, GTRI is exploring ways to incorporate artificial intelligence and deep learning training methods to improve the robot's image classification abilities and overall performance.

GTRI has also partnered with Dario Chavez, an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia Griffin Campus in Griffin, Ga., to further explore the intelligent automation of peach farming.

Gary McMurray, a GTRI principal research engineer and division chief of GTRI's Intelligent Sustainable Technologies Division, said the novel robot stands to transform the fruit cultivation process for many farms that have struggled to grow trees that are strong enough to withstand unpredictable environmental conditions.

Neil Tyler

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