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Harvest Assist System

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Last Updated 21 October 2014

Harvest speed and quality is critical to orchard profitability. Our goal is to build affordable harvest assist systems that increase speed of bin filling, reduce bruising, and increase worker safety and comfort. Our most significant result in this area is the development of a vacuum-based dry bin filling machine that accommodates four workers picking on the ground or on a platform. The machine completely eliminates picking bags and ladders. Instead, workers simply place the fruit on the lip of a plastic tube that gently guides the fruit to a singulation device and into the bin.

We built a tractor-pulled version for Washington growers and one that fits onto an existing orchard platform for Pennsylvania growers. They were both extensively tested in research and commercial orchards during the 2010 and 2011 harvesting seasons. In Washington in 2011, workers using the harvest assist system picking fruit from the top portion of the trees were up to 33% more efficient than workers on ladders, albeit at the cost of a small increase in bruises and cuts. For whole trees, the times are equivalent. The lessons learned are the basis for a variety of improvements that are being made in time for the 2012 harvest:

- A self-leveling trailer to ensure that the bins are evenly filled with fruit, even when the system operates on slopes.
- A mechanism to maintain the platform perpendicular to the trees, rather than the ground, helping with the positioning and access to the tree and fruit.
- A shelf above the distributor flaps in the bin filler to ensure even filling of the bins even when the volume of fruit being picked varies from one side of the row to the other, or when picking outside rows.
- A remote steer/shuttle shift system on the tractor that can be operated from the platform to eliminate the need for a driver in the row, and a creep gear so that the tractor can move at about 0.2 mph.
- LED lighting for 24-hour operation. LED lighting is closer to natural light and casts less shadows than other types of illumination, and also has a lower energy consumption.
- A telescoping tongue between the tractor and the platform that can be retracted when turning from one row to another.
- Replacement of the safety rail with harnesses, which workers in Washington are more accustomed to.

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