By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Ma Thu Sha La was an infant in 1982 when his family left his home country of Burma, fleeing what quickly became a war zone.

“Soldiers came into the village and we couldn’t live there anymore,” he said through a translator. “They started killing people. We were scared we might be next. Everyone left.”

As refugees in Papu, Thailand, his family shared a one-bedroom bamboo hut alongside thousands of others. They struggled for low-paying jobs in road construction and WSU Tri-Cities newsweren’t allowed to seek employment outside the camp. Ma Thu said sometimes, despite hours of grueling road work, they would not see a paycheck for their efforts.

“It was hard,” he said. “But the worst part was the waiting. We lived in the dark, not knowing what was going on.”

In 2011, after years in the refugee camp, Ma Thu and his wife, Lu Dee, whom he married in 2003, received word they would be coming to the United States after applying and being approved for their green cards.

Once in the U.S., they aspired to own their own home, but they didn’t know if the feat was possible. In their first few years in the U.S., the family shared a two-bedroom apartment in Pasco, Wash., on Ma Thu’s salary of $25,000.

WSU Tri-Cities newsLast year, the family was approved for a three-bedroom, 1,200 square feet house after applying through the Tri-County Partners Habitat for Humanity. Sponsored and built in partnership with Washington State University Tri-Cities, the home is one of 24 themed houses sponsored by various local organizations as part of Habitat’s Whitehouse Addition Project in Pasco.

To make their home a reality, WSU Tri-Cities must raise approximately $80,000 to supplement the building and enable Habitat to sell it to the family at an affordable price with no-interest loans. The family is required to dedicate 500 sweat equity hours to construction.

Donations may be made to the program by contacting Ken Fincher, WSU Tri-Cities assistant vice chancellor of advancement and community engagement, at ken.fincher@tricity.wsu.eduor 509-372-7398.WSU Tri-Cities news

“This is an opportunity to provide for a family that has lived a life unimaginable to many,” Fincher said. “For years, this family dreamed of a home. This is our chance to give them one. Any donation will go directly into this project.”

Volunteering requires no previous construction experience and all equipment is provided on site. To sign up to volunteer, visit For more information on the Coug House, visit


Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Manny-Garcia-80RICHLAND, Wash. – Within the confines of his cold, concrete prison cell, Emmanuel “Manny” Garcia found himself seven years ago contemplating the depths of his reality.

Following the death of his father in 2000, he got involved with the wrong crowd and started abusing drugs. In 2009, he was found guilty of theft of firearms and burglary and began serving a sentence at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane, Wash.

There, he started a plan to ensure he would never see the inside of a prison cell again: “I enrolled in some college classes,” he said.

Thanks to this first step, and help from the federal TRIO program, he has overcome his criminal past and is thriving as a student speaker and future leader. TRIO provides low-income, first-generation and disabled students with tutoring, counseling and other resources to help them succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

“TRIO changed my life,” Garcia said. “I don’t know where I would be today without the TRIO program and the help I’ve received through Washington State University Tri-Cities.”

Care, concern keep him on track

While taking courses in prison through Spokane Falls Community College, Garcia worked with his chemical dependency counselor to end the toxic cycle of substance abuse and addiction. He got a job, earning 30 cents an hour, to pay off $1,500 in college debt he owed from a previous try at community college.

WSU Tri-Cities student Emmanuel “Manny” Garcia is using the university TRIO program to overcome his troubled past and help others.

“I was battling many personal issues and many personal demons,” he said. “I wanted a better life for myself. I knew it could be done through the power of education.”

Out of prison in March 2012, he enrolled in Big Bend Community College. After a successful first quarter, he decided to take winter quarter off.

“I was just feeling that I wasn’t adequate and I wasn’t worthy to go back and be in school,” he said. “My thought was ‘How is a convict like me ever going to change?’ That was when a TRIO advisor called me. They cared enough to call and see if I was OK.”

That gave him the motivation to complete his associate’s degree before enrolling at WSU Tri-Cities, where TRIO has continued to be crucial to his success.

Better future based on education, experience

A junior psychology student, Garcia ultimately hopes to earn a doctorate and start a nonprofit organization to help out others with troubled pasts.

He said the TRIO staff at WSU Tri-Cities has been able to locate scholarships for him that he would not have known about otherwise. He is on a psychology research team and participates in community service projects. He holds a 3.8 grade point average.

He has served as a resident advisor for TRIO Upward Bound, the organization’s summer academy program, where he shares his story with younger students.

“Things are going really well for me now, and I owe a lot of that to the TRIO program,” he said.

He works with the El Nuevo Camino organization, a crisis intervention program to reduce youth crime and violence. He serves on the board and is being trained to become project manager.

“It is a new organization, but we collaborate with local law enforcement, judges, district attorneys, community leaders and health professionals,” he said. “Our plan is to make a real difference right here in our local community.”

Aiming for grad school, inspiring others

Garcia said he hopes his story encourages others on the path to success and will motivate others to apply to TRIO and get involved.

He recently spoke at WSU Tri-Cities’ first celebration of National TRIO Day:

“I want to encourage you, if you are a first-generation, low-income or disabled student, to sign up for TRIO today,” he said. “I am fully convinced that TRIO works. I am living proof. If I can do it, so can you.”

He plans to apply for TRIO’s Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which is a competitive grant for graduate school for participants from disadvantaged backgrounds who have demonstrated strong academic potential.

For more information about the TRIO program at WSU Tri-Cities, visit

by Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. – Cameron Hohimer, a Washington State University Tri-Cities mechanical engineering doctoral student, will explore the possibilities of soft robotics through 3-D printing as part of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Hohimer was awarded a $34,000 for three-years annual stipend and an additional $12,000 for three years education allowance, which will offset the cost of tuition and fees.

Hohimer had a small part in working on the apple picking robot that WSU researchers Manoj Karkee and Changki Mo are constructing with the help of graduate researchers. He said that robot, for example, has rigid links that allow it to grab the apples at certain pressure points for certain sizes and shapes. But with soft robotics, they could attempt to create more compliant actuators, which are responsible for moving or controlling a system, using more malleable materials, he said.

Cameron Hohimer“Soft robotics is a relatively new area of study in which we are trying to create non-rigid actuators and components for robotics systems,” he said. “The nice thing is if you were to use something like this for apple harvesting, as you move into objects, it is compliant. It would bend out of the way. It can more easily form to what it is you are trying to do.”

Hohimer said current methods for creating many of these types of soft robotics materials are done through injection molding and silicon casting, but his hope is that he can use fused deposition modeling, a type of 3-D printing, to make the fabrication process faster and easier, as well as utilize it to create parts and products that are more complex in design.

“You see a lot of applications of soft robotics in creating humanoid robots,” he said. “Obviously our hands are very dexterous. You can pick up a wide range of objects with varying geometries and sizes. Most rigid grabbers, or end effectors, are not good at picking up cylindrical objects and then trying to pick up something that is a different shape. With soft robotics, you can design manipulators that are more robust that can grasp items with a wide variety of shapes and sizes.”

With his research, Hohimer will also investigate the ability to 3-D print piezoelectric polymers, which could be used to sense strain and vibration and be embedded into soft robotic actuators.

Hohimer earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from WSU Tri-Cities in 2014. He is two years into his doctoral program in mechanical engineering at WSU Tri-Cities.



Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Ellis,-left,-Lake-and-FordSEATTLE – Three Washington State University Tri-Cities students will be honored today with the Washington Campus Compact Presidents’ Award as part of the statewide Students Serving Washington Awards program 3-5 p.m. at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The award recognizes students at Washington Campus Compact ( member institutions who have exhibited exceptional leadership and commitment to serving their communities.

Brent Ellis, left, helps other students with a project on the Coug House.

WSU Tri-Cities Chancellor Keith Moo-Young said the awardees are outstanding examples of students using their WSU educational opportunities to better their communities and the environment.

“From building a house for a family that spent years in poverty in a refugee camp, to expanding upon WSU Tri-Cities’ mission for sustainable practices, to researching means to improve crops in times of climate change, these students are taking advantage of opportunities for service leadership and changing lives for the better,” he said.

The WSU Tri-Cities honorees are:

Brent Ellis, a senior environmental science student who is also up for the Outstanding Service Award from Washington Campus Compact. He has led construction efforts for the Coug House, a home that WSU Tri-Cities is building for a family of Burmese refugees in partnership with Tri-County Partners Habitat for Humanity.

Melanie Ford sorts grapes with winemaker Duncan Brons.

Elinor Lake, a junior biological sciences student who is the WSU Tri-Cities environmental club president and a finalist for the national Udall Undergraduate Scholarship. She is helping organize a redesign of the campus recycling program and is leading efforts with the club for cleanup days around the mid-Columbia region.

Melanie Ford, a sophomore viticulture and enology student who is working on ways to overcome climate change. She spent the last several years studying its effects on ecosystems in New Zealand cave environments. At WSU Tri-Cities, she researches climate change’s impacts on Washington agriculture, specifically wine and table grapes.


Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – A self-driving fuel-cell car, a prosthetic arm and a solar-powered hot water heater are among the 14 projects that will be showcased during the 2016 Washington State University Tri-Cities Engineering and Computer Science Senior Design Expo at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 26, in the West Atrium.

Students will present real-world projects they spent the school year researching, designing and developing. Members of the community are invited to attend give their feedback to the students.

“Each of these projects began as an idea enriched by considerable enthusiasm and compelling vision,” said Joseph Iannelli, WSU Tri-Cities executive director of engineering and computer science. “Through teamwork, diligence and expert mentorship, these students successfully completed innovative projects that are fully anticipated to make a real-world impact soon.”

Other projects include a pedestrian bridge for Badger Mountain Trail, design for a new engineering building, cloud-based decision support and data integration for precision agriculture and an optimized TiLite wheelchair.


Joseph Iannelli, WSU Tri-Cities engineering and computer science, 509-372-7420,
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

MarceauRICHLAND, Wash. – Students got to dig deep in a Washington State University Tri-Cities class recently, exploring archaeology while uncovering authentic materials provided by local Native Americans.

Professor Thomas Marceau spent 44 years as a professional archaeologist – 22 at the Hanford site. Through relationships formed there with the Wanapum people, he borrowed authentic artifacts, bones and other materials to bury in test boxes that students excavated and analyzed.

“We’ve spent the past few months going over the procedures archaeologists use in the excavation process,” he said of the new Introduction to Archaeology course. “I wanted to provide students the chance to try out everything they’ve learned on an actual dig.

“I thought it was important to have authentic tools for this,” he said. “Students get experience identifying real artifacts and materials.”

In addition to the artifacts provided by local Native Americans, the soil, excavation tools a


Professor Thomas Marceau, center, talks with students excavating five test boxes planted with authentic artifacts provided by the Wanapum Native Americans.

nd other materials were as close to real-world examples as possible.

“The sand we’re using in the test units is dry and dusty, mimicking the Hanford site in July and August,” Marceau said. “It’s hard to excavate. Students used trowels and brushes as their primary excavation tools as they do in the real-world setting.

“Each site has a different activity showing how Native American people made their living,” he said. For example, one of the test boxes held artifacts that might be left behind by an ancient woman grinding bones to get grease and marrow to eat and use. Others held remnants that would remain from a butchering station and a hide processing area.

Once the students excavated and documented their finds, they measured and identified them in the lab. They are writing excavation reports about their discoveries and the general archaeology process.

Most of the students said they enjoyed the real-world exploration provided by the course.

“It lets you experience what it would be like if you were actually doing an excavation,” said Michelle Meehan, a senior business student.

“It’s interesting uncovering history through items we find,” said Christian Rochon, a senior history student. “A lot of history is written by archaeology. It’s cool learning where we were back then and how we got to where we are now.”

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities have figured out a way to successfully convert a common wood byproduct into hydrocarbon molecules that could be used as jet fuel.

Bin Yang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering, said the hydrocarbons from his new procedure could eventually replace the need for petroleum-based fuel sources.

The work of Yang’s team will be on the cover of the December issue of Green Chemistry, a journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. The work was published online in September and can be seen at
Yang also holds a patent on the process:

Making use of lignin waste

Yang’s procedure converts lignin, an organic polymer that makes plants woody and rigid. Ordinarily, it is wasted when plant biomass, including cellulose, is converted into biofuels like ethanol.

“After cellulose, it is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth,” according to the website of the Switzerland-based International Lignin Institute. Between 40 and 50 million tons of lignin are produced annually worldwide, mostly as a non-commercialized waste product, according to the institute.

“The effort to transform lignin into higher-value products for large developed markets is critically needed,” Yang said. “If we can make jet fuel from the biomass-derived lignin, it addresses this challenge.”

Yang said the process could grow the economic potential of advanced biofuels.

“It will begin to address the nation’s challenge for the production of clean, domestic biofuels that can help replace crude oil,” he said.

Biofuel partnership with Boeing

Yang’s team is working with Boeing Co. to develop and test the hydrocarbons targeted to be jet fuel.

Yang’s procedure converts lignin into a mix of hydrocarbons in a single reactor using appropriate catalysts. The resulting product must be separated and purified to obtain the jet-fuel hydrocarbons that can be used in turbine engines.
Ralph Cavalieri, director of WSU’s Office of Alternative Energy, said molecules derived from biomass currently must be combined with petroleum-based jet fuel to meet the certification requirements for jet fuel. Yang’s procedure, however, may be able to supply the molecules that are necessary to be certified as a jet fuel.

Jet fuel typically needs molecules that consist of 12 to 16 carbon atoms to fulfill jet engine requirements, Cavalieri said. Comparatively, gasoline requires molecules with fewer carbon atoms, but that fuel is much more volatile. On the other end of the spectrum is diesel, which requires molecules of 16 to 20 or more carbon atoms. While it is significantly less volatile, diesel begins to gel at cold temperatures.

Cavalieri said jet fuel requires the same nominal range of molecules as kerosene, which isn’t as volatile as gasoline but also doesn’t freeze at the cold temperatures found at altitude.

“With the research being conducted by Dr. Yang, it may be possible to develop a more complete suite of molecules required for turbine engine systems using only biomass feedstocks, making the process more economically feasible and efficient,” he said.

Lignin yields diverse bioproducts

In addition to hydrocarbons suitable for jet turbine engines, Yang is using lignin to produce a variety of other chemicals and materials. Through two recent grants funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, both headed by Texas A&M University, he leads WSU’s effort to produce lipids and bioplastics created from lignin.

He also is working with the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado on projects to convert lignin into a range of chemicals, including supercapacitors.

Yang and his team’s research is supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency through the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the Sun Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Seattle-based Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation.


Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640,
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Sebastian Fernandez has learned lessons about teamwork, the “art” of experiential learning and the rewards of rigorous study as an undergraduate at Washington State University Tri-Cities. He hopes to apply and expand those skills in the first class of WSU’s new medical school in Spokane, Wash.

“It sounds cheesy, but I just want to help people,” he said. “I could do that by becoming a doctor. I knew WSU could help me get there.”

Practical beginnings

A competitive WSU summer internship at Kadlec Regional Medical Center exposed him to the medical field via real-world application.

In one instance, a man stopped breathing and, within seconds, the doctor and his team worked efficiently to restore the man’s breathing.

“In 30 seconds, they brought him back from the dead,” Fernandez said. “It was amazing.”

Fernandez said that doctor gave him advice that he will use in his career as a physician.

“He told me, ‘The most important thing you have to remember is team work. Just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you get to boss everybody around,’ ” he said. “That stuck with me. It takes a team to accomplish great things.”

Research experience

SebastianFernandez-1-webSo Fernandez teamed with Birgitte Ahring, professor in the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities, to create a more efficient biofuel using volatile fatty acids from cow stomach fluid and corn stover (post-harvest waste) in the absence of oxygen, also called anaerobic fermentation.

“We wanted to pick an area that would be relevant to the medical field and apply to his future aspirations,” Ahring said. “Anaerobic bacteria is relevant for humans because the inside of humans is anaerobic and the human body houses 10 times more bacteria than human cells.”

Cow stomach fluid was added to corn stover to produce volatile fatty acids, which can be used to produce biofuel to power cars, planes and other vehicles.

“School is typically very structured,” Fernandez said. “You follow the steps and write down what you observe. In a more experimental setting, it is kind of like working with a blank canvas. It is like an art. You can do anything. You can test anything.”

Rigors and rewards

“It took me months to learn,” he said of the research. “I had no idea I would have my own experiments and be writing a scientific paper with references. It is really hard. It takes hundreds of hours.”

But it provided him with experience needed for entering into the medical field, he said, while allowing him to conduct research that will make a difference in the biofuels industry some day.

“I just want to make a difference and the best way to do that is by helping others,” he said.
He said his results show that untreated corn stover actually yields greater volatile fatty acid production than pretreated corn stover. This finding will save the industry in the long run because the material won’t require pretreating.

He is making the final touches on a research paper, which he will work on with Ahring to send in for publication.

Medical school and beyond

After completing his undergraduate work this summer, Fernandez plans to take the medical school admission test and apply to schools in the fall.

“I want to go into immunology and infectious disease,” he said. “I feel like I have a good mind and can figure things out. The best way to help the world is by using those skills in the medical field.”

He eventually intends to work in a free clinic so he can give back to the community.

He said he would love to be one of the first graduates of WSU’s new medical school, which plans to welcome its first students in fall 2017.


Sebastian Fernandez, WSU Tri-Cities undergraduate, 480-559-5732
Birgitte Ahring, WSU Tri-Cities professor, 509-372-7682,
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333,

For Nick French and Robb Zimmel, a career in wine science made sense following their military experiences.

For French, currently a junior majoring in viticulture, the decision to pursue a degree in the viticulture and enology field from WSU Tri-Cities came after serving five years with the United States Air Force. He spent three years on active duty stationed at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, where he served as a crew chief on KC-135 Stratotankers and the other two years with the Washington State Air National Guard.

“While I was stationed in Kansas, I noticed that most of my favorite wines and wine selections were from this area, and, of course, California,” he said. “As a husband and father, I had to choose a degree that would be suitable to living near family in Washington.”

From the Air Force to viticulture

French said after hearing stories of the emerging wine industry in Washington and witnessing the construction of the Ste. Michelle Estates WSU Wine Science Center on the WSU Tri-Cities campus, it was a “no brainer” deciding to pursue a degree in viticulture and enology.

French enrolled as a student at WSU Tri-Cities a few years ago while keeping up with his former military life through involvement with the Veterans Office on campus. Now a junior, he serves as the vet corps navigator for the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs on campus while completing his degree. His courses and connections at WSU have led to a variety of experiences in viticulture, his primary interest.

“Last summer, I interned with the viticulture department at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and had a great experience,” he said. “I really enjoy being outdoors and working with the grape vines. Combining modern technology with pest and disease management has been really intriguing to me.”

“I had seen things that couldn’t be unseen. I had to have a career change.”

For Zimmel, who graduated from WSU Tri-Cities in 2014, the decision to pursue a career in winemaking came after he realized that, while he was grateful for his years in the U.S. Army Reserves, his job put too much stress and strain on him and his family.

For most of his career and through the present, Zimmel has served as a detachment sergeant for a small forward surgical team. Prior to this, he served as a line medic from 1991 to 1998, which gave him the foundation to serve as a paramedic as a civilian. He also served as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson in South Carolina until he was called overseas to Afghanistan in 2006-2008, and then to Iraq in 2009-2010.

“It wasn’t until I was in Iraq that I called my wife on a satellite phone in a wind-torn tent and explained to her that I had seen things that couldn’t be unseen,” he said. “I knew I had to have a career change. I didn’t want to go back to the medical field.”

Zimmel’s wife suggested that he look into winemaking as a career, considering he has expressed an interest in doing before. Zimmel said he knew he didn’t have the resources to attend University of California Davis, which offered a comprehensive degree in viticulture and enology.

“Later, it was my wife that made the discovery that WSU had a program and a plan soon began to be made,” he said.

Zimmel began taking courses first at WSU Vancouver in viticulture and enology, before transferring to WSU Tri-Cities to complete his full degree in 2014. He was in one of the first “Blended Learning” classes, which made a complete batch of wine from vine to bottle.

“When I started, I had no background in viticulture and enology,” he said. “I did, however, enjoy wine and always wanted to know more about it. I had the opportunity to travel a lot with the military and I fell in love with the Riesling in Germany, Sauv blancs in New Zealand. I’ve had horrible reds from the eastern block of Russia and incredible wines from the northern part of Italy.”

Forever a veteran

Even though both Zimmel and French are pursuing new passions after military careers, they said they will always cherish their time in the military and they even use their experiences as they can be applied to careers in viticulture and enology.

Zimmel has since started his own wine label, “Cerebella” under his winery name “Zimmel Unruh Cellars,” which released in summer 2015. In doing so, he said he’s using many traits and lessons from his career in the military.

Those include the fact that he knows he’s not the smartest person in the room, that burning bridges wastes time and energy, and that he can work with strangers to accomplish goals.

French said he respects and values his time in the military and continues using the skills he developed, such as leadership, work ethic and persistence, as he pursues his degree and moves into his future in viticulture.
Read more about Robb Zimmel here.

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

RICHLAND, Wash. – Between 15-18 billion apples are harvested every year in Washington state for fresh market consumption, but often farmers can’t find enough people to pick the fruit.

Many agencies have tried to create a device that will help with the picking process – a machine that is both gentle enough and picks fast enough to make it economically viable for commercial use – but have been unable to do so.

Engineers and scientists at Washington State University Tri-Cities and the WSU Center for Precision and Automatic Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) are creating a practically adoptable robot that will pick apples as efficiently as people.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a research team from WSU a $548,000 grant in 2013 as part of its National Robotics Initiative. The team hopes to test a working prototype as early as this fall in an orchard in Prosser, Wash.

A unique approach

5 Hohimer-looks-at-printer-web

Cameron Hohimer, doctoral student at WSU Tri-Cities, examines the work of the 3D printer as it makes a part for the apple-picking robot prototype.

Unlike in factories and other industrial applications, apples require a system that is delicate enough to pick the fruit without bruising it, while also maneuvering around tree branches, leaves and other obstructions, said Manoj Karkee, principal investigator on the project and WSU assistant professor of biological systems engineering.

“That’s why it is more challenging and difficult compared to the robotics we have in industrial applications,” he said. “It does not mean we cannot learn from what we have seen or known in the industrial environment, but it takes much more creative solutions to make it happen in orchards.”

Karkee said he believes he and his team have taken a unique approach compared with others who have investigated robotic apple-picking.

Human assistance improves performance

Karkee is working with project co-investigators Qin Zhang, CPAAS director, and Karen Lewis, WSU regional tree fruit specialist, to approximate how the robot should move and manipulate to be most efficient and cause the least damage to the fruit and tree.

6 3D-printer-makes-part-web

A 3D printer makes a part for an apple-picking robot.

Working with Changki Mo, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at WSU Tri-Cities, the team is focusing on the complementary nature of robots and humans to complete the apple-picking system.

“We are trying to use some level of human assistance in a co-robotic environment,” Karkee said. “The robot would do about 95 to 98 percent of the job, but the remaining 2 percent would be done in assistance by a human operator. That makes it, at least in my opinion, possible to see the level of accuracy and productivity that we need to achieve.”

The robot features an arm and “hand” in which eight motors operate in congruence with a vision system to delicately grasp and twist the fruit off the tree as a human does.

The robot’s vision system incorporates cameras and sensors to capture an image of the tree. Using algorithms to identify color, shape and texture, it differentiates fruit from the rest of the plant and determines fruit location so the robotic arm can be directed for picking.

Hope for the future

Karkee said he is pleased with the progress and is optimistic about the team’s prototype that could be used for commercialization in the near future.

“This is one of the most challenging problems that scientists and agricultural engineers are dealing with right now,” he said. “Based on what we know, it is really promising. We really think we have something.”

He said if they succeed in creating an apple-picking robot, it could potentially save growers millions in Washington’s multibillion dollar apple industry.

“(Apple picking) is labor intensive, costly, risky; there are not enough laborers to do it and it is seasonal,” he said. “All of these factors encourage us to develop a machine. These are recognized problems that farmers, local bodies and the federal government are all trying to solve. We hope to be the solution to that problem.”



Manoj Karkee, WSU assistant professor of biological systems engineering, 509-786-9208,
Changki Mo, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of mechanical engineering, 509-372-7296,
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations coordinator, 509-372-7333,