From Handpicking to High-Tech: The Evolution of Apple Harvesting

Early Days of Apple Harvesting 

In the early days of apple harvesting, the process was entirely dependent on manual labor. Farmers and workers would carefully handpick each apple from the trees, ensuring that only the ripest and best-quality fruits were selected. This method required a significant amount of time and effort, as well as a skilled eye for identifying the ideal apples to be harvested. It was a labor-intensive process, but it allowed for a more selective approach to apple picking. 

As apple orchards began to expand and the demand for apples grew, the need for more efficient harvesting methods became apparent. The traditional handpicking method was unable to keep up with the increasing demand, leading to the exploration of alternative techniques. 

Introduction of Mechanical Harvesting 

The introduction of mechanical harvesting revolutionized the apple industry. With the invention of mechanical apple pickers, the process became much faster and more efficient. These machines were designed to shake the apple trees, causing the ripe fruits to fall onto a conveyor belt or into a collection bin. This method significantly reduced the need for manual labor and increased the speed at which apples could be harvested. 

Mechanical harvesters allowed farmers to harvest a larger quantity of apples in a shorter amount of time, making it possible to meet the growing demand. These machines were particularly beneficial for large-scale commercial apple orchards, where the manual handpicking method would have been impractical. 

Advancements in High-Tech Harvesting Equipment 

In recent years, there have been significant advancements in high-tech harvesting equipment for apple orchards. These advancements have further enhanced the efficiency and precision of apple harvesting. 

One notable advancement is the use of robotic harvesters. These robots are equipped with sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence technology that allows them to identify and pick ripe apples with great accuracy. They can navigate through the orchard, avoiding obstacles and selecting only the best-quality fruits. 

Another technological advancement is the development of automated sorting and packing systems. These systems can quickly sort and pack the harvested apples based on various criteria, such as size, color, and quality. This automation not only saves time but also ensures that only the highest-quality apples make it to the market. 

Additionally, high-tech harvesting equipment often incorporates advanced data collection and analysis capabilities. This allows farmers to gather valuable insights about their orchards, such as yield estimates, fruit quality assessments, and disease detection. By leveraging this data, farmers can make informed decisions to optimize their apple harvesting processes. 

Impact of Technology on Apple Harvesting 

The advancements in technology have had a profound impact on the apple harvesting industry. 

Firstly, these advancements have significantly increased the efficiency and productivity of apple harvesting. With mechanical harvesters and high-tech equipment, farmers can harvest a larger quantity of apples in a shorter amount of time. This allows them to meet the growing demand for apples and maximize their profits. 

Secondly, technology has improved the quality of harvested apples. Mechanical harvesters and robotic pickers can carefully select only the ripest and best-quality fruits, ensuring that consumers receive apples at their peak freshness and flavor. 

Lastly, technology has made apple harvesting a safer and more comfortable process for workers. The automation of labor-intensive tasks reduces the physical strain on workers and minimizes the risk of injuries. 

Overall, technology has revolutionized apple harvesting, making it more efficient, precise, and profitable. 

Performance in Apple Harvesting 

Using manual harvesting techniques, a worker can harvest between 2.5-3 tonnes in a 12-hour shift, earning a wage of €12-18 per hour. 60% of the cost of growing apples is attributed to labour, with harvesting accounting for 44% (26% of the total cost). The quality of the harvest is accurate, with minimal damage. 

Autonomous machines are still in the prototype or initial market introduction phase, and their designs are not yet mature. Currently, they operate with 80-95% detection accuracy at an average speed of 7-10 sec/apple. These robots can work continuously, 24 hours a day. They are currently capable of 1.8-2.5 tonnes per day, which is slightly below human performance. However, they operate without causing damage and ongoing improvements are being made to their performance. The performance is calculated based on a gripper, and depending on the machine’s design, several grippers can be added. Maintenance costs are minimal, with only the cost to be considered. Some manufacturers estimate that the payback period is as short as three weeks. 

Future Trends in Apple Harvesting 

The future of apple harvesting is likely to be shaped by further advancements in technology. Fruit robots need to be developed in four directions: 


The main issue of apple harvesting robots is their low harvesting efficiency. Although some robots can operate 24 hours a day, they are still slower than humans.  


Improvements are also needed in the area of punctuality. This includes the grip method-design, visualisation-detection capability and reach speed. 


The most intelligent robotic apple pickers can adjust to changing light and weather conditions and even learn from past decisions. This is why human employment is still necessary: to solve problems and make decisions in the field. 


A machine that frequently breaks down or cannot operate in low light or fog will not be a sustainable solution for apple producers. A successful machine in this changing market must be robust and weatherproof. 

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