Could strawberry-picking robots be future of fruit farms?

  • Date

    Mon 20 Aug 18

Robots picking strawberries

Robotics experts at the University of Essex are working with world-famous jam makers Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree to look at ways of picking strawberries with robots.

In some UK farms, though not at Tiptree, up to 20% of soft fruit are currently unpicked due to problems recruiting enough workers – a situation which could get worse after Brexit – and farms are having to look at alternative ways of harvesting their crops in the future.

The research at Essex, led by Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, is part of a major project looking at how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits, working alongside humans in a farm environment and also reducing production costs.

“The challenge is that no two berries are the same - they come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage,” explained Dr Mohan. “Also the environment keeps changing constantly - sunny, windy, rainy - in contrast to a typical industrial environment. Hence, dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today.”

Currently one billion strawberries are picked by hand at Tiptree every year, by humans who have half a second to check the strawberries for ripeness, disease and size.

“Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it is a complex, integration  of vision, touch, force and movement and on top of it the ability to learn and adapt - which is the only way to deal with any changing, unstructured environment,” added Dr Mohan.

Andrey Ivanov, General Manager – Farms at Wilkin & Sons, said: “We are excited to be working with the University of Essex on this ground-breaking project. Fruit picking may seem a simple task but picking the fruit without touching the berry will be a challenge. We need to ensure that the fruit we grow always arrives with the customer in perfect condition.”

To help the first part of the project to get robots to identify ripe fruit, scientists are working with a special variety of strawberry which has low hanging fruit, and work is underway to enable robots to select and pick them and a prototype should be available in few months time. The research will then look at bi-manual robotic coordination to recreate how humans pick with two hands, active vision to find berries amongst foliage and learning to counteract changing environmental conditions.