Researchers at Purdue University (PU) have received $6m to develop an automatic grape pruning machine that will reduce the laborious and costly task of pruning in vineyards and apple orchards.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, the apple and grape industries have an economic impact of around $5.5bn annually and they spend around 20% of their costs every year on pruning vines and trees.

To make the task easy, PU horticulture associate professor Peter Hirst is working with PU electrical and computer engineering research assistant Johnny Park and PU electrical and computer engineering professor Avi Kak to develop and improve machines that use cameras and robotic arms to perform the task.

One such machine is the automated grapevine pruner prototype developed by Vision Robotics of San Diego.

In this prototype, a tractor pulls the machine over grape vines while the cameras capture images of the vines and a computer tells robotic arms to prune the vines from a specific location.

Park said the challenge is to accurately construct 3-D models of trees and vines and program that in such a way that the computer can determine the optimal points to prune.

"Our goal is to make this work at a speed that makes sense financially for growers," Park added.

Hirst said the research and development from this program should move that machine into a commercially available device that would be cost-effective for grape producers.

The university received half of its funds from the USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative and another half from industry partners and institutions.