WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Fully automated farms aren’t far off, but one of the biggest problems so far has been harvesting soft fruits, and this new robot brings automation a step closer.
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Robots aren’t dexterous at all – that is unless you count this robot hand from OpenAI that’s as dexterous as a humans. But that asides… and that’s a problem if you want to automate the picking of ripe fruit at harvest time – especially as the amount of available human labour plummets, whether that’s because of US-Mexico visa restrictions or, in the UK’s case Brexit. And while there are now robots coming onto the market that can pick 10,000 apples an hour, and other fruits like oranges, one of the most problematic fruits for a robot to harvest is yes, you’ve guessed it, raspberries.
But now a company called Fieldwork Robotics – a spinout company from the University of Plymouth in the UK – has announced the successful completion of early field trials of a raspberry harvesting robot, and if commercialised it could help make up for a shortage of human fruit pickers in the country.
According to a recent report in The Guardian, seasonal eastern European workers – who make up the majority of the UK’s fruit pickers – are feeling much more welcome in continental European countries like Germany than Old Blighty, which could mean crops are left to rot in the fields. But thanks to the continued development of work by Dr. Martin Stoelen at the University of Plymouth’s School of Computing, a robot workforce could soon be out in the fields instead.
Fieldwork Robotics was formed to commercialise the technology, which is being initially proven by harvesting raspberries. Picking this fruit is considered particularly challenging due to it being more easily damaged than other soft fruits, coupled with its uneven distribution on the bushes on which it grows. The thinking here is that if a robot harvesting system can nail raspberry picking, then it should be easily adapted to other fruit and vegetable harvesting.
With this prototype, ripe fruit is detected by the robot’s camera system, then its two picking arms reach into the bush, gently grab and pluck the raspberry and drop it in a collector before moving onto the next one.
A farm in West Sussex, the same farm that became the first farm in the world to autonomously plant and then harvest a crop, signed up to put the robot harvesting system through its paces late last year and those initial field trials have now been completed. Fieldwork Robotics will now use the data gathered to tweak the prototype system before engaging in more field trials later this year, ahead of potential commercialisation, it says, in 2020.
“We are delighted with the progress Fieldwork is making in developing a raspberry-harvesting robot system,” said Neil Crabb of Frontier IP, a major stakeholder in Fieldwork Robotics. “Completing these field trials is an important milestone in commercialising the technology, and we are looking forward to the next round of tests in the autumn.”
The short video shows the prototype in action.
Source: University of Plymouth