Plucking ripe apples from stout trees may be an autumn family tradition, but commercial orchards require more advanced methods of harvesting apples so they can be sold in stores and large farm stands. Several types of apple picking machines remove significant amounts of apples from trees in a relatively short amount of time so that they can be cleaned, sorted and packages for sale to large retailers.
Smaller orchards usually opt for tractor-mounted machines that easily attach to a farm's regular tractor. The small machines utilise an extendable arm that grasps the trunk of the tree and shakes the apples free into a pickup system, which usually includes a series of buckets and rotating conveyor belts to remove excess stems and leaves. Some tractor-mount systems also include a built-in cleaning system that removes dirt from the apples as well. Larger hydraulic tractor-mount systems for larger orchards are also available; the hydraulic systems usually include a pivot system so that the shaker arm can rotate around the front of the tractor. One of the benefits of the tractor-mount systems is that they do not require orchard owners to purchase and store additional large machines.
Mechanical tree shakers are self-contained tractor units designed specifically for shaking apples from a tree. Unlike most tractor-mount systems, mechanical tree shakers require two operators. One operator drives the shaker tractor. Instead of a mechanical arm, mechanical shakers utilise a specialised cloth sling to shake the tree; the second operator is responsible for wrapping the sling around the trunk of the tree. Mechanical shakers also include pickup systems for collecting the apples, and some orchard owners prefer mechanical shakers because the cloth slings are less likely to damage the tree or its fruit.
Robotic pickers are less common than mechanical pickers because many robotic pickers are still in development as of 2010. Robotic pickers are designed to remove the need for human operators. Most designs of robotic pickers include several robotic arms that individually pick apples from the tree to avoid any damage to the tree or to the fruit. Robotic pickers are best used in larger orchards where workers pick apples by hand. Robotic pickers are also employed in citrus orchards. These pickers tend to be the most expensive option for orchards, but they also replace the need for manual picking.
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