Research aimed at helping growers improve efficiency, reduce costs and overcome labor shortages will be enhanced with the recent completion of a new agricultural engineering shop at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center.
Crews broke ground in late 2019 for the facility, which will enable the fabrication and testing of machinery and precision technologies designed to automate orchard production operations such as crop thinning, pruning, irrigation, harvesting, pest management and frost protection.
Located in Biglerville, Adams County, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s fruit belt, the Fruit Research and Extension Center – often referred to as FREC – is an important resource for the state’s tree-fruit industry, which produces apples, peaches and other fruit valued at about $130 million annually. The new fabrication shop was made possible in part by funding from the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania.
A new study led by Long He, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, will be among the first projects to benefit from the fabrication facility. He recently received a nearly $423,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop a robotic green-fruit thinning system.
Research to develop a robotic thinning system to identify and selectively remove green fruit, such as these apples, will be among the projects that will benefit from the completion of a new ag engineering fabrication facility at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center.
Green-fruit thinning reduces the number of fruit early in the growing season, with an eye toward improving fruit size and quality. However, He explained, manual thinning is labor-intensive and, therefore, is not practical and efficient for large-scale operations. Chemical fruit-thinning depends on climate and fruit variety and is time-sensitive. Nonselective mechanical thinning may remove good fruit and damage fruit or tree canopies.
The goal of He’s project is to develop a robotic system that will use machine vision to precisely detect and locate green fruit and selectively remove the unwanted fruit without damaging the remaining fruit. Although the focus of this project is apples, the knowledge and technology potentially could be expanded to thin other tree-fruit crops, such as pears and peaches.
“Implementing such a system will increase productivity significantly and improve the long-term sustainability of the U.S. tree-fruit industry,” He said. “The new fabrication facility will give us the space and flexibility to build and test the components of this system before we move it out to the orchard for larger-scale experiments.”
Jayson Harper, FREC director and professor of agricultural economics in the College of Agricultural Sciences, pointed out that without the input and support of growers, the fabrication facility and much of the research and extension programming conducted at the center would not be possible.
“The State Horticultural Society of Pennsylvania has been an indispensable partner in helping us to generate new knowledge and to provide research-based information to growers,” Harper said. “The completion of the ag engineering shop is the latest example of this collaboration, which contributes to the economic and environmental sustainability of the state’s fruit industry.
“The completion of the fabrication shop and other improvements at FREC also became a reality thanks to Gary Thompson, the college’s former associate dean for research, who was enthusiastic in his support of the center’s staff members and their work on behalf of the state’s fruit industry and citizens,” he added.