Robot boosts blueberry picking efficiencies
Farmer's Weekly|October 22, 2021
Agritech company Arci technologies is in the process of developing South Africa’s first semi-autonomous agricultural robot. three of the company’s founders spoke to Glenneis Kriel about their machine.
Glenneis Kriel

FAST FACTS

The ARCi robot is a semi-autonomous machine used as a carrying platform.

Being modular, it can be adapted for different uses, including pest and disease management.

The robot is in the pre-commercial stage of development.

Michael Back and his son Simon, owners of the Backsberg wine estate between Paarl and Franschhoek in the Western Cape, had a problem at blueberry harvest time: their pickers were having to walk up to 150m to and from quality-control centers to deliver the fruit. The inefficiency of the system was obvious, so the Backs set out to find a way of reducing walking time and increasing the hours dedicated to picking and sorting.

Simon explains that they didn’t want to use tractors, as their orchard rows are narrow (2m to 2,5m depending on the variety), and tractors would have to move past farmworkers, whose numbers grow to over 300 in peak season from August to November.

Aside from this, tractors are heavy on fuel, have a high carbon footprint, increase the risk of compaction, and require drivers.

“We were looking for a conveyer-like solution onto which workers could place their buckets [of fruit] right where they were working. My father then came up with the idea of having a robotic carrier platform that automatically followed picking teams up and down rows to collect and deliver their buckets to the quality-control centers,” says Simon.

Carl Malherbe, one of their farm managers, suggested that the Backs consult electronics engineer Cobus Meyer to help them develop this solution. Meyer in turn approached Chris von Wielligh, a fellow electronics engineer, to assist him with this challenge.

Cobus, Chris, Michael and Simon have since founded ARCi Technologies, and have developed what can probably be considered South Africa’s first semi-autonomous agricultural robot, ARCi. The name is derived from the term ‘agricultural robotic carrier’, and is pronounced ‘Archee’ to give the machine some personality.

THE FIRST TWO PROTOTYPES

The original model was an old remote-controlled car from Cobus’s childhood, which they retrofitted with an inexpensive camera to test the first version of their autonomous guidance technology. “We wanted to prove that we could implement a basic autonomous system with inexpensive parts that could guide our car down an orchard row,” he says.

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