As the farming sector encounters increasing labor costs and shortage of seasonal workers, the future of fruit berry picking is saved by Robocrop, the world’s first raspberry-picking robot. It is nicknamed after Alex Murphy aka Robocrop by British journalists.
Robocrop is expected to be more efficient than its human counterparts; 15,000 berries can be pick by humans for a day (eight-hour shift). However, the robot built by Fieldwork Robotics can pick more than 25,000 raspberries a day. Also, robots don’t get tired and can pick berries for 20 hours daily.
How does it work?
The robot stands at the height of 1.8 meters. It is equipped with machine learning and computer vision software to identify the ripe berries. Then, its grippers have advanced pressure sensors that generate the right amount of force to pick the berry without damaging it.
Currently, it takes an estimated time of one minute to harvest a berry. But according to its inventors, when operating at full capacity, the robot’s gripper can pick a raspberry in 10 seconds or less. Then, it drops it in a tray where the berry is sorted by maturity before it is delivered to the supermarkets.
UK farmers usually pay £1 to £2 for a kilogram of raspberries picked by human workers. Fieldwork plans to rent the robots to the farmers at a lower price, says Rui Andres, one of the main backers of Fieldwork.
Robocrop is the brainchild of Dr. Martin Stoelen, a robotics lecturer from Plymouth University’s School of Computing, Electronics, and Mathematics. He took inspiration from his grandparent’s farm in Norway. It took £700,000 to develop the robot. In the process, he created Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout from the University of Plymouth.
During the separate field trials done in China, the robot can pick tomatoes, and they tested if it can be used to harvest cauliflowers.
Fieldwork Robotics has officially signed an agreement to develop Robocrop with one of UK’s most famous berry growers, Hall Hunter. Currently, the robot has completed the initial field trials at a Hall Hunter Farm in West Sussex.
The results from the trials are going to be used to revise and improve the robot before other field trials are executed for the next months.
Meanwhile, Robocrop’s final version is scheduled to be released in production in 2020. It will have four grippers that can pick berries all at the same time.
With the increasing minimum wage and decreasing number of seasonal workers from Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland (following UK’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016), the berry farmers showed their interest in the robot. The decreasing labor force mostly affects berry and apple farmers, and it is reported that farms poach workers from one another.
Last summer, it was reported that the fruit growers were 15 to 30 percent short of seasonal pickers. There were crop losses last year and the year before, said Nicholas Marston, the chairman of the British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade body.
Farms in the United Kingdom for apples, berries, and other crops require 70,000 seasonal workers per year. The berry industry currently hires 29,000 workers, but with the increasing demand for berries, BSF expects that it needs 2,000 extra pickers in 2020. This year, the National Farmers’ Union reported more than 6,000 vacant jobs on farms.
Aside from the United Kingdom, other European countries, the United States and China are also challenged in finding the sufficient number of workers to harvest their product — so harvesting robots can somehow help solve this problem.
Aside from raspberries, Dr. Stoelen is also leading a project to develop robots for harvesting cauliflowers (this is supported by Agri-Tech Cornwall) and tomatoes (this is in cooperation with Shanghai Jiao Tong University).
The team at Fieldwork Robotics decided to first start with raspberries since they are challenging to harvest, more delicate and easily damaged compared to other soft fruits.
If Robocrop’s first mission will be successful, it’s inventors plan to improve the technology so it can be used to harvest other berries, fruits, and vegetables shortly.