Fruits Of Robotics

When Steve Saunders and Dr Alistair Scarfe founded New Zealand-based tech company, Robotics Plus, their vision wasn’t to create robotic solutions that would send agriculture, horticulture and forestry workers into unemployment. It was to develop state-of-the-art technology that would free them from traditional high labour and menial tasks, so they could be upskilled to work alongside the new tech. The pair has spent the past decade achieving this goal, and with the help of Yamaha Motor Company, they have created some seriously cool robotic systems.

A prime example exists in the booming call for New Zealand apples. As demand grew, so did a failure point in the sorting and packing process. Traditional manual-labour methods that have been used to sort and pack apples for more than 100 years quickly became a costly bottleneck in the distribution process. In a country such as New Zealand, which has a huge market but only a small population to source sorters and packers from, this became a significant challenge.
Dr Scarfe said the need to alleviate challenges created by the dirty, dull and dangerous jobs is where Robotics Plus has had a big impact. “These menial and repetitive tasks are the prime target sector for our robotics and automation systems,” he said.

“By creating automated solutions, and supplementing those areas with technology, Robotics Plus is enabling the workforce to move into other areas. This includes expanding their skills as well as working with and learning about the new technology. In short, we are developing autonomous solutions for the most menial, repetitive tasks, while creating higher-skilled positions."

With the technical assistance of Yamaha Motor, the Tauranga-based company has been able to grow from a small Kiwi tech business into a world leader in the development of affordable robotic automation solutions for a wide range of agricultural environments.

Taking advantage of Yamaha’s extensive knowledge in machine vision and artificial intelligence, Robotics Plus has developed a range of post-harvest robotics and autonomous vehicles for fruit packing, orchard harvesting and pollination.

“The journey with Yamaha has been fantastic for us,” said Dr Scarfe, “it has allowed us to see things in a different light. In a partnership, we wanted something that was going to be more than just financial, and that was one of the attractive aspects of this relationship. Yamaha is such a big robotics company, with a vast depth of experience,” he added. “What is also exciting is that Yamaha has an eye on the future with some of its technologies around electric drive systems. This is quite appealing to us.”

The technical partnership between Yamaha and Robotics Plus has provided a valuable opportunity for both companies to invest in the growing area of agricultural robotic solutions as well as encourage future growth by investing in new technologies.

Using the Robotics Plus automated fruit packing robot as an example, Senior Project Leader, Matt Jones, explained how the partnership with Yamaha helped customise a solution for a problem no other company in their field had looked at. 

“Our packing robot uses a 16-axis Yamaha electronics system to pack a variety of fruits,” he explained. “The robot is not simply picking up the fruit and placing it in a box, the modular system uses recognition technology to place the fruit with the lushest side upwards. It also spaces the fruit correctly with the stems all aligned. This is achieved with a Yamaha-designed pick-head that uses a vacuum and suction cup system to pick up, orientate, and place the fruit gently. It can do this repetitive task 120 times per minute. When we set out to create this solution, there was nothing else like it in the marketplace.”

With Yamaha’s continued assistance, Robotics Plus is also working on solutions for tomorrow’s challenges. Unmanned ground vehicles to provide autonomy in multiple environments is an area that will allow a single vehicle to carry out multiple applications, not just one vehicle for one job.

“We want to make sure we're developing technology that is universally applicable across a range of areas,” Dr Scarfe explained. “We are presently working on an exciting Unmanned Vineyard Vehicle (UVV) project with Yamaha Motor United States. Its primary design is for spraying grape vines, but the sprayer can be replaced with a mower, or vine trimers, allowing the vehicle to be utilised for more than one task.”

Looking back over the past decade, and reflecting on where the company has come from, how its technology and learning have progressed, as well as how it has been used to solve challenges and make an impact, is something Dr Scarfe finds deeply satisfying.

“Being able to use our technology to solve industry challenges, and make an impact, is cool”, he said. “We just want to keep doing what we are doing.”

Yamaha’s investment in robotics resonates with its ART for Human Possibilities vision by focusing on the use of Advancing Robotics to address social issues in uniquely Yamaha ways. Learn more about ART and Yamaha’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) at via the About Us section of our website.


  • About Robotics Plus Ltd

    Robotics Plus Ltd (RPL) was established as a start-up company focused on developing Mechanisation, Automation, Robotics and Sensor (MARS) technologies for horticulture and other primary industries. They employ a modern technological approach to automation using advanced computer based design, embedded control systems and modern manufacturing processes that have enabled us to develop several world first technologies and deliver efficient solutions across a range of engineering disciplines.

    RPL's team’s multidisciplinary background enables us to address complete systems not just individual sections.  They integrate the best technological solution based on merit.  Although off-the-shelf components are used where possible, many components or systems are either too costly or not quite right for optimising performance.  Robotics Plus Ltd often develop their own arms and control systems to ensure they can meet all specifications, whether its speed, size, cost or other metric to ensure we can meet end-user requirements.

    Customer insight is critical to creating systems suitable for industry. During the first five years of startup phase, RPL’s core strategic focus and function was directed at research and development of an Autonomous, Kiwifruit Harvester and a Robotic Apple Packing Cell; building internal capability and strategic relationships; as well as investigating market and customer requirements.   

    What emerged is an approach to business that provides access to our cutting-edge technology through contract service. This means RPL's customers do not have to buy complete systems and get the most up-to-date versions on the market. Robotics Plus Ltd lives in a growing world where it is becoming harder to supply healthy food options like fresh produce to people globally and keep maintain a competitive price point against processed alternatives. Robotics can help the sustainable future of fresh produce where RPL can deliver products, processes, services or advice with a complete system perspective.

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