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In a world first, a robot that can pick raspberries has been developed by Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout company from the University of Plymouth. Could the future of fruit picking be decidedly autonomous?
At £700,000 a pop, you could be forgiven for thinking a robot that takes around 30 seconds to pick a single raspberry doesn’t represent a particularly sound investment. But if what Fieldwork Robotics say is true, each raspberry-picking robot will be capable of collecting around 25,000 raspberries a day – that’s about 10,000 raspberries more than a human worker can manage in an 8-hour shift.
For the fruit farming industry, the robotic trial can’t finish soon enough. One of the consequences of the Brexit debacle is a shortage of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe and, as a result, the industry is facing rising labour costs.
Developed in partnership with Hall Hunter – a berry grower that supplies Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose – the robot stands about 1.8 metres tall. The robot is guided by an array of sensors and 3D cameras, and its hand-like gripper relies on machine learning to select ripe fruit.
As you’ll see in the video at the end of this post, the fruit-picking robot has just one gripper right now, but the team behind it says there will be four in the final version, all picking simultaneously.
Robots don’t get tired and that makes them excellent for manual tasks like picking fruit, plus they are able to increasingly work in differing light conditions.
The initial trials took place at one of Hall Hunter’s berry farms in West Sussex. The data gathered will now be used to refine and improve the raspberry-picking prototype further, with production of a commercial system due to commence in 2020.
At present, farmers pay between £1 and £2 for a kilogram of raspberries picked by human workers. Fieldwork Robotics’ aim is to lease their robots to farmers at a rate that’s more competitive.
If economies continue to thrive in countries where UK seasonal workers typical hail from, we can expect to see farmers here at home relying more and more on autonomous technology going forward.
Check out the prototype in action:
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