Belgium: Strawberry-picking robot gently picks the ripest berries

In a greenhouse in Belgium, a small robot moves through rows of strawberries growing on trays suspended above the ground, using machine vision to locate ripe, flawless berries, then reaching up with a 3D-printed hand to gently pluck each berry and place it in a basket for sale. If it feels that a berry isn’t ready for harvest, the robot estimates the date it will be ready for it to return and pick it.

It’s a test of a system that Octinion, the R&D company building the robot, believes could replace traditional strawberry farming and harvesting.

In California, where tough immigration policies plus broader economic conditions mean the number of immigrant farmworkers is decreasing (and native-born workers don’t want the job), strawberry growers are finding it harder to find workers to harvest fruit. In the U.K., Brexit is making farm labor less appealing for Eastern European workers who used to do the job. Most developed countries are facing similar challenges with agricultural labor shortages.

“Agricultural labor, at this point, is not sustainable, in the sense that it’s often people who come a long way–a few thousand kilometers–do that work, and after the season they go back, or people come over as immigrants and do that kind of job to get started, and afterwards move on to other, better jobs,” says Tom Coen, CEO of Octinion.

The new robot can pick one berry every five seconds; a human can do the job slightly faster, picking and packing a berry every three seconds. “We’re a bit slower, but we’re already economically profitable because the cost per berry is similar,” Coen says.

Read more at Fast Company (Adele Peters)

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