Stuff - Robots to train vineyard and orchard workers to do a better job

Written by Jo McKenzie-McLean

Robots with "arms and hands" could in the future prune in vineyards and orchards across New Zealand. 

The government has granted University of Auckland researchers $16.8 million to develop a robotic automation system to upskill human workers, and do manual tasks.

Professor Bruce MacDonald said robots would not take people's jobs, rather plug New Zealand's "endemic" labour shortage and allow the industry to use humans for higher-value jobs.

"[The industry] can't get enough people to do this work and over the past couple of years it has got worse. It used to be difficult and now it's impossible."

In the first phase of the five-year project, sensors would monitor what experts did on orchards and vineyards.

Augmented reality technology would then train new workers to do a better job, he said.

 "They would wear glasses and it would show them, for instance, how to prune vines."

In the second phase, the robot "would have arms and hands and automatically does things we learn from human operators".

Research partners included Waikato, Canterbury and Otago universities, Lincoln Agritech and Plant & Food Research, he said. "

Central Otago Wine Association spokesman James Dicey supported the project.

"Work is going on in Europe and California, but it's proven to be more difficult than anticipated. I'm very happy to hear [Auckland University] are having a crack at it."

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment contestable investment manager Dr Max Kennedy said the robotics project could help increase export revenue and increase orchard productivity. 

"It was awarded $16,769,775 through the 2018 Endeavour Fund to support growers and manufacturers by creating a new piece of technology using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR)."