With everything from self-driving tractors to robots being able to monitor crops, it’s no secret that agriculture is currently in the middle of a high-tech revolution. Well, robots just added another farmyard job they can do better than us puny humans: Picking strawberries.
The robot in question is designed and built by Belgian engineering company Octinion. Using some smart machine vision algorithms and a 3D-printed hand, it’s able to work out when a particular strawberry is ripe for plucking, and then pick it off the forb (yep, we hadn’t heard that word either!) without causing any damage.
“We have developed a fully autonomous strawberry picking robot,” CEO Tom Coen told Digital Trends. “It’s able to navigate autonomously with centimeter precision. Thanks to local beacons, no structural changes to a greenhouse are necessary. Using our own 3D vision system, the robot can perfectly detect and localize ripe strawberries. Our patented soft touch gripper then picks strawberries without bruising, just like a human picker.”
While robots have been getting way better at the kind of fine-grain movements required to pick strawberries, Coen said the team still faced challenges developing their bot. One of the big ones was the risk of bruising the fruit, which they eventually solved using a “soft touch gripper that spreads the pressure evenly over the surface of the strawberry.”
Another challenge was figuring out whether the strawberries were ripe, which was achieved by training a dedicated AI system for the task, and also picking the strawberry without any of the attached greenery. This last challenge required turning the strawberry at an angle of 90 degrees, which required the creation of an entirely new robotic arm different to others on the market.
“The robot currently picks at a speed of one strawberry every five seconds, which is close to a human picker,” Coen said. But while humans may be able to beat the robot in terms of speed, the robot has the edge when it comes to not damaging the fruit, as well as being just as keen to pick at night (and on weekends and holidays) as during the day. “Most importantly, the robot picking cost is now competitive to the human picking cost,” Coen continued.
Next up, the robot will expand its skills to also cover sorting the fruit in both size and quality, picking conditionally depending on strawberry characteristics, predicting harvests and precision farming, and packaging the strawberries up ready for shipping.
“Our robots will be picking strawberries for pilot partners in 2018,” he said. “We expect that we will have about 100 robots in greenhouses worldwide in 2019.”
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