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Prototype of greenhouse harvesting robot almost able to operate independentlyNo more clumsy people stomping around in the greenhouse, but a harvesting robot doing all the work. Is that the future of pepper cultivation? In Wageningen a prototype is assembled as we contemplate the question. The robot is equipped with a gripper arm with nine pivot points and a number of 3D camera systems.
Jochen Hemming from WUR
In April 2012 the first prototype was tested in a greenhouse environment. By the fall of 2013, this prototype should be able to independently operate in a nursery, picking peppers. And that's tricky, says researcher Jochen Hemming from the WUR of the Dutch Technology Society in Agriculture. "You’re dealing with a sensitive product in an unstructured environment. The fruits are mostly hidden among the leaves. A robot must be able to distinguish between a green leaf and a green stem to avoid damaging the plant."
The research is progressing, but will the project yield a realistic alternative to manual labour? An earlier contraption, the cucumber harvester, proved unprofitable. "The machine must also be economically viable," admits Hemming. "We have asked growers the hourly rate of their employees and developed our robot according to these numbers." That means that the machine has to reap a pepper every six seconds, day and night. "That’s something we’re trying to achieve right now. But we’re still a long way from marketing this thing. You could say we’re still grabbling with the philosophy of it all: can we really do this, and if so, how?"
The Crops Project (Clever Robots for Crops) started in October 2010 and lasts four years. The project involves parties from twelve countries to develop a harvester for high value crops such as peppers, apples and grapes. Currently, a prototype is put together by Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture - but the components are developed throughout Europe. Technicians of Jentjens Machinetechniek in Veghel designed the platform on which the unit can move through the greenhouse. The development of the harvest robot is funded by the EU (CROPS GA No. 246252) and the Product Board for Horticulture (PT No. 14555).
A second, improved prototype is undergoing parallel development.
Watch a video to see the robot in action
Publication date: 3/22/2013
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