Tauranga-based agricultural robotics and automation company Robotics Plus is unlocking new levels of productivity in agriculture and helping to solve important challenges.

Robotics Plus was founded in 2013 by Steve Saunders and Dr Alistair Scarfe and over the years has developed a range of world-first innovative robotic technologies to improve the quality, productivity and sustainability across multiple agricultural sectors through automation.

Robotics Plus’s technologies include robotic apple packers and UGV (unmanned ground vehicles) that can carry out a range of agricultural tasks including robotic harvesting produce such as asparagus, fruit picking fruit such as kiwifruit and pollination.

There are also a number of other product innovations which it intends to launch in the next 18 months.

Co-founder Steve Saunders says the shortage and struggle of attracting and retaining suitable labour into horticulture has driven many of Robotics Plus’s projects.

“These labour issues are of great concern to the sustainable and competitive future of the horticultural sector. There is a large demand to mechanise many on-orchard and horticultural tasks to help reduce the reliance on a seasonal and often migrant labour force.

“Robotics Plus focusses on dull boring dirty and dangerous tasks that can be done by robots,” he says.

“Robotics Plus understand that robotics can help more than just labour issues, such as increasing the efficiency of current technologies.

“In the case of our UGV’s, Robotics Plus is developing multiple new UGV’s to show the application of our technology into several environments.”

These UGV’s are able to navigate around orchards and fields and are in a beta testing phase. They are smaller and more agile than a human operated tractor and use sensors to map the environment. They also have a navigation system with technology to drive the electric motor which means the UGV can get close to plants, without damaging them.

The concept for these is based on modular technology. A sprayer, a fertiliser spreader, a cutter, or a pollinator can be attached to the UGV. UGV’s can be adapted to suit any load or row spacing.

Robotics Plus and the University of Waikato have been collaborating on the development a robotic asparagus harvester.

This has already been trialled in the US and work is ongoing to finesse the learnings in way the robot cuts and picks asparagus.

“Work has begun on a prototype for infield testing and trials will begin again in spring to coincide with the asparagus season,” Saunders says.

The company is also working on pulling together a global collaboration of asparagus growers and key industry players to focus on problems to be solved collectively and determine how it could be commercialised.