Western innovator: From Nepal to robotic pioneer

Dean Wheat


Some 30 years ago, he was a lad tending rice, sugarcane, goats and other crops on his family’s subsistence farm in the mid-hill region of Bhojpur, Nepal.

Last December, Manoj Karkee (pronounced Maw-nose Car-key) was among 11 U.S. and Canadian professors named 2019 pioneers in artificial intelligence and the internet by Connected World, a business and technology publication.

Karkee, 41, is an associate professor in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at Washington State University. He leads a staff of 12 in the Agricultural Automation and Robotics Laboratory at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.

Karkee completed high school in Bhojpur and received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu in 2002. He received his master’s degree in remote sensing and geographic information systems at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2005.

His doctorate in agricultural engineering and human computer interaction is from Iowa State University.

Karkee joined WSU in 2010 as head of the laboratory researching agricultural automation and mechanization with an emphasis on machine vision and sensing technologies for automation and robotics.

He is working with FFRobotics, of Emeq-Heffer, Israel, on development of a robotic apple harvester. Other projects have included apple crop load estimation, fruit tree and berry bush pruning, blossom thinning, water and nutrient stress monitoring, weed control in vegetable crops and big-data based irrigation systems for winegrapes.

Humble beginnings

As a youngster attending school and working on the family’s farm, Karkee never dreamed of traveling overseas, much less becoming a research scientist in the U.S.

“Growing up the best thing I saw was a junior government officer at my district headquarters and that is what I wanted to be,” he says.

His dreams and aspirations were limited by what he could see.

He was one of 10 children. Their father worked in local government and had the farm to make ends meet.

The crops and animals were for the family’s subsistence.

Topography was steep. It was common to go back and forth between the 3,000- to 5,000-foot level in any given day’s activities.

“We had no telephone, no running water nor electricity. So it was a different way of life. We used kerosene lamps. By American standards we were primitive,” he said. “We were not the poorest, but not the richest. A lot of people struggled to find enough to eat. We had food and access to education and health care, so we were lower middle-class.”

To get to the university in Kathmandu, Karkee first walked 30 miles, crossing the same river 22 times and sleeping in bamboo huts, to catch a bus that would take him the remaining 320 miles.

He excelled in school, and it became his gateway to a new life.

Each step in education was like another step on a ladder that opened more possibilities.

After receiving his master’s degree in Thailand, he arrived at Iowa State University to work on his doctorate in 2005.

He didn’t return to Nepal until 2012. Now he goes every other year with his family or when his job takes him to China or Southeast Asia.

Importance of agriculture

With the world’s population estimated at 7.5 billion and expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050, Karkee believes demand for food will increase rapidly.

The critical challenge, he says, will be “substantially and sustainably” increasing production with limited or even decreasing farm resources.

The availability and cost of farm labor will continue to be a critical challenge. He has devoted his career to developing mechanization and automation.

Robotic apple harvesting

Karkee is developing machines for green shoot thinning in winegrapes and has other projects, but he views his most innovative and important achievement as development of a robust image processing system that’s been key in advancing robotic apple harvesting from theory to reality.

“We have emphasized understanding how manual operations are performed. How people pick apples. How they prune trees. We use that understanding to design robotic systems,” he said.

Karkee had early contact with the owners of Abundant Robotics of Hayward, Calif., and invited them to Washington to meet apple industry members when they were exploring which crop to target in the development of robotic harvesters.

 “We shared what we were doing and explored things for a year or so. They went to get their own funding as a private entity and we worked with government funding. We continued to exchange ideas until about a year ago when I began working with FFRobotics,” Karkee said.

His primary focus is the robotic image processing system. His lab now has two patents related to that and now developments are joint intellectual property with FFRobotics. He said WSU’s involvement in commercialization has not yet been decided.

Image processing involves recognizing and locating fruit and determining its quality — size, shape and color.

“There are also sensors that tell you internal qualities like brix (sugar content), but we are not doing that right now. That’s something we can add in the future,” Karkee said.

Seven years ago, recognizing and locating fruit was a challenge but advancements in artificial intelligence techniques, including “deep learning,” have helped a lot in finding fruit, he said. Accessing fruit behind leaves, branches and other fruit remains a challenge, he said.

Peering into the future

Abundant Robotics announced the world’s first commercial robotic apple harvest in New Zealand this spring and plans more in Washington state this fall. FFRobotics may be close on its heels. It will hold pre-sale demonstrations in Europe and the U.S. this fall.

“It’s a big achievement, a turning point for our industry. It’s exciting and I’m a big proponent to make farming completely automated. Yes, it’s possible,” Karkee said. “We need to keep in mind that it does not mean that we wouldn’t have people working in farms but they would have better jobs supervising and maintaining machines rather than cutting branches out in the cold environment or harvesting apples in the heat.”

He predicts it will be 5 to 10 years before robots harvest more than 50% of Washington’s $2.4 billion annual apple crop.

“At best robots can harvest 75% of the crop. We need to improve that,” he said.

Abundant Robotics plans to provide contract robotic harvesting to growers. That will take a lot of machines and time and some growers would rather own their machines, Karkee says. They will have that option with FFRobotics.

It’s good to have competition but the two companies may also prove to be complementary in that certain varieties may do better with one system over the other. FFRobotics’ picker has a three-fingered, electronic “hand” while Abundant Robotics suctions each apple from the tree.

Beyond apples, there’s much to be done.

“Even combines for wheat and corn have a lot of improvements to be made. There is a lot of research and development issues for those kinds of machines,” Karkee said.

But for the foreseeable future, he said, his focus will be on improving robotic image processing for apple harvesting and to expand into pruning, thinning and training by the same machines.

From Capital Press

Published on 13 May 2019