Tree fruit and orchard growers never know season to season how much product they'll produce, but they can consistently rely on one thing.

Labor costs, with all the personnel it takes to walk the rows inspecting and picking the fruit, are intensive and expensive.

But help might be on the way, and it comes courtesy of something you might see on "Star Trek."

A consortium that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university faculty and extension members across the country as well as those in private industry are collaborating in an effort to automate and modernize much of the orchard system in an attempt at reducing labor costs and helping those orchard growers struggling to continue making ends meet.

The consortium calls its initiative the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops, and its members say nothing less than the future of the specialty crop industry is at stake.

"We must stay competitive in the global market," said Gwen Hoheisel, a Washington State University extension educator who works closely with the initiative. "Our labor is expensive. Production costs are high.

Consortium works to help orchard growers

Courtesy Washington State University

An autonomous prime mover, such as the one attached to this vehicle, consists of lasers and software that steer the vehicle automatically. A group of USDA officials and university faculty is using the APM as part of an initiative to reduce labor costs by automating the orchard system.

"Any improvements we can make helps keep our industry sustainable."

The initiative, CASC for short, might have complex technology, but it's simple in concept - utilize the most modern technologies so that machines can accomplish much of what in the past has taken countless human bodies to do.

One of the centerpieces of the CASC effort is what it calls an autonomous prime mover, a series of lasers and software that can be mounted to a four-wheel vehicle or to a semi-autonomous platform pulled behind a vehicle that effectively steers the vehicle automatically, reducing labor costs. The APM can "see" the trees in an orchard and steer itself down the open lanes between rows.

"The idea behind the autonomous prime mover is a laser technology that has the capability to auto-steer," Hoheisel said. "Auto-steering is available now in some farm equipment, but it is through the use of (global positioning systems), which is difficult to utilize in closed orchards."

The APM can perform a variety of tasks that normally would require laborers to perform, such as insect monitoring and elimination, weed management and detection and plant stress and disease detection.

"You can take this auto-steering laser technology and put it on any machine," Hoheisel said.

Hoheisel was quick to point out that the consortium's CASC initiative doesn't stop at the APM. Other projects are being worked on in areas such as socio-economic development, pest management tools, disease detection and crop load management. Hoheisel pointed to a project currently underway involving an automated tree caliper that measures the diameters of trees in an orchard without the need of labor.

CASC is operating on a $6 million USDA grant that is part of the Specialty Crop Research Initiative contained in this year's Farm Bill. Another $6 million will be put forth in land use, equipment and salary contribution by members of the consortium.

The consortium of collaborators includes Washington State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State, Purdue, Oregon State, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Vision Robotics, IONco, Toro (which provided the test vehicle for the APM), Trimble and Sensible Machines.

For more information on the four-year effort, go to www.cascrop.com.