Strawberry-Picking Robots to Substitute Manual Workforce

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The U.K. robotics experts at the University of Essex collaborated with a British jelly manufacturer to train robots in picking farm strawberries

That U.K. farms currently waste around 20% soft fruit due to problems recruiting enough workers. This situation could potentially get even harder after Brexit, which is why there’s a need to find alternative ways of harvesting this fruit. Humans can pick berry in fraction of a second, developing a robot for same task is challenging, as it will need to an impressive amount of precision, speed, and other traits to compete. Previous research studies reported designs of robot for picking cucumbers and tomatoes. Moreover, a Belgian engineering company called Octinion is working on similar strawberry-picking robotic technology, which aims to have around 100 greenhouses worldwide by 2019.

“The main challenge is the unstructured dynamic nature of the problem,” said Vishuu Mohan, a professor in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Essex. “Berries grow with time, come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness, and the environment cannot be fully controlled. In such conditions, solving the identification or ‘what could be a ripe berry,’ localization or ‘where is it in space,’ and motion planning or ‘how do I move to reach, grasp, and cut it’ [problems] are the main challenges.”

Recently researchers from the University of Essex developed a robot to accurately identify and reach for berries. Also, it can cut stems as required. A prototype for the same is expected to be launched in near future. Although this may seem yet another quasi-depressing chapter on the road to total workplace automation, Mohan is more optimistic. “Contrary to the notion that ‘robots are taking jobs,’ they are actually not in this particular case, and humans can move higher up in the value chain — for example controlling the robots, [and] managing the logistics,” he said.

Brian Hobbs

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