Tuesday, 02 July 2019

Strawberry-picking robots to gather enough fruit for Wimbledon

Wimbledon fans, who consume 34 thousand kilos of strawberries every year, could one day get their strawberries picked by a small group of new robots developed in Europe that use photonics to detect a fruit, and are capable of gathering enough berries for the championships.

Unveiled by the EU-funded photonics innovation incubator, ACTPHAST 4.0, it would take just 14 of these new robots less than 7 days to pick and package all the perfect, red, unblemished strawberries needed for Wimbledon.

The 'Rubion' bot picks and packages ripe strawberries, bruise-free every 5 seconds with its delicate clasping mechanism, and has the ability to deliver between 180 and 360 kilograms every single day.

Depending on the skill and experience, an enthusiastic human picker can collect around 50 kilograms in a day but will need to take breaks, be prepared to work for very little and can be tempted to eat some of the sumptuous berries.

From beneath, the robot picks individual strawberries grown in raised bedding a few feet off the floor and can sort the fruits by size or weight and pack into punnets as it goes along.

Described as a 'revolution' in harvesting fruit, the strawberry-picking robot collects soft fruits like a human, bruise-free at a rate of 11,500 berries (between 180 and 360kg) in a 16-hour day. With its patented arm-mechanism the robotic picker detects a ripe strawberry with lasers before literally 'clasping' a hanging berry from beneath.

ACTPHAST 4.0 supported OCTINION, an R&D company specialising in providing robotic solutions to agriculture and food, to develop the Rubion bot.

Robotically-Harvested Strawberries

While collecting apples and other hard fruits has often taken a more straightforward mechanical approach, literally shaking crops and collecting them off the ground having fallen, the automated picking of berries has always suffered from drawbacks owing to the delicate nature of the fruit.

CEO and founder Dr Tom Coen explains:

"The picking of soft fruits with machines has always been tricky given that they are so easy to get squashed and the sensitivity needed to discern whether a fruit was ripe or rotten, simply wasn't there."

"However, Rubion, our autonomous strawberry-picking robot is a novel way around this problem. It is comparable to a human in many ways: the robot only picks the finest fresh, red berries and will not bruise or hurt the strawberries in any way."

The picking and sorting speeds are comparable to the ideal human picker but with advanced quality monitoring and the ability to work without a rest or a break, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

CTO & co-founder of Octinion, Dr Jan Anthonis said:

"Our robot doesn't need a break or a holiday and doesn't complain about the weather. Rotting and unpicked fruit from a lack of human pickers on farms all over the world could soon be tackled with robots."

Rubion uses photonic sensors to detect the wavelengths of light, or the 'signatures' given off from a ripe, red strawberry according to a pre-programmed set of characteristics the RGB camera built into the 'eye' of the robot.

"Just like you know what a plump, juicy red strawberry looks like," Anthonis explained, "Rubion can do this mathematically, looking for the infrared spectroscopic heat signatures given off from a perfect fruit, getting a perfect 'hit' every time."

"The arm has our very own patented 'soft touch gripper' that doesn't do any more damage to the strawberries than a human would. It picks the strawberry literally like a person without cutting or burning the stem, but by actually picking a berry."

Key Photonic Components

Although the expertise at Octinion was bringing innovative automation solutions to their customer, it was the partnership with ACTPHAST 4.0, an SME 'incubator' that helps existing and fledgling businesses with innovation in photonics, that provided the perfect calibration of the RGB camera built into the robot.

"ACTPHAST 4.0, helped considerably to detect the perfect ripe strawberry," Anthonis said.
With many SMEs today simply not having access to experts in the technical aspects of innovating with photonics, ACTPHAST 4.0 works with them to nurture their product.

Peter Doyle, central outreach coordinator, said:

"It was a real buzz in helping to develop the key photonics components that ultimately realised the robotic strawberry picker. Existing businesses that have never used photonics before are now looking to ACTPHAST 4.0 to help them develop the photonics component to their next generation product."

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