Vacuum Assist Harvester Comes Closer to Reality

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

HERSHEY, Pa. — If Pennsylvania orchards are to become fully automated in the future, the first generation of machines could be on the market by 2014.

Phil Brown, co-owner of DBR Conveyor Concepts, said Tuesday at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention that his company’s vacuum assist harvester may be available for sale by then.

But it won’t be cheap. He estimates growers will have to put down $100,000 to get the machine, which has been in development for several years.

Brown and Paul Heinemann, professor of specialty crop production systems at Penn State, talked about the development of vacuum assist harvesters and the advantages and challenges of having one in an orchard.

Research on the vacuum assist harvesters began in earnest as a result of funds provided through the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops program, a multiuniversity project funded by the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative.

The first vacuum assist harvester prototype was developed in 2010 by DBR Conveyor Concepts. The two-tube unit was mounted on a platform, featuring a loud, motor-driven vacuum. It allowed a picker to pick apples from a tree and put them in a vacuum tube, rather then directly into a bin or small basket. The apples then traveled through the tube and into a fruit bin behind the machine.

“Harvest assist is bridging that gap” between manual and fully automated harvesting, Heinemann said.

The first prototype brought with it several issues. First, the machine required a lot of maintenance as a result of the hot motor damaging various adhesives on the machine. There were also issues with bruising, depending on how fast the apples came out of the vacuum and the size of the fruit.

An “elephant ear” distributor, as Heinemann describes, was put in to slow the apples down and distribute them around the bin. It reduced bruising at first, with further modifications later that year.

In 2011, a second prototype was built, which was quieter, faster and more narrow, Heinemann said, to accommodate Michigan and Pennsylvania orchards.

A third prototype was built in 2012.

Brown said the latest prototype features platforms that can move up and down and side to side independently of each other and sits lower to the ground, which allows a picker to harvest an entire tree.

Along with that, new buckets were developed that Brown said reduced the need for a picker to turn around to make sure they were putting the apples into the vacuum tubes.

LED lighting was also put in for nighttime picking.

“The picking into the buckets worked really well. We feel we really got some good improvements,” Brown said, adding that it took between eight and 10 minutes to fill a bin.

Heinemann said the machine improved the rate of harvest, based on trials with three different apple varieties. On average, the vacuum harvester was 33 percent more efficient in terms of the number of apples that could be picked and the time it took to fill a bin.

Quality of apples and bruise size are still an issue, he said, depending on the size and variety of apples being picked.

There are also challenges in using a machine on hilly terrain along with the machine’s maintenance costs and managing the harvest crew, especially if the machine isn’t working.

Heinemann said research has begun on developing a prototype for smaller orchards, which would rely more on gravity and less on an engine-powered vacuum.

Even though the initial machine will likely cost a lot, Brown said a grower could use the platform for other purposes since parts of the machine can be taken off when not being used.

“It’s a machine that’s used 12 months out of the year. We feel payback can occur within a couple of years,” he said.

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