After working on their harvesting robots in secrecy for many years, Belgian developers can now they can finally show us a prototype. The machine was demonstrated at the International Mechanisation and Demonstration Day at Research Centre, Hoogstraten last week.
This is how it works: A gripper picks the strawberry from below, twists it, breaks the stem and then places it in a punnet on a flatbed lorry. That is the basis of the harvesting robot that the engineers of the Belgian bureau Octinion, have been working on.
At the International Mechanisation and Demonstration Day in Hoogstraten, a prototype of the machine was revealed. “The approach of the machine is that it picks 70 per cent of the strawberries, and harvests a fruit every three seconds,” explains technical director Jan Anthonis. “This should result in the machine costing as much as a human harvester.” The machine should harvest 24 kilograms per hour, compared to 12-20 kilograms for a human. Furthermore, the robot can work 24 hours per day.
Harvesting from below and twisting sideways are important characteristics of the machine. “We discovered, in cooperation with the knowledge institutions, that harvesting is easier thanks to the sideways twist,” says Anthonis. “The strength of the stem is less when harvesting vertically. Moreover, it is quite similar to manual harvesting.” Only ripe fruits are now being harvested, but various ripeness stages can be added later with vision technology.
Belgium versus Japan
Belgium is not the only country developing a harvesting robot for strawberries, Japan is also working on this technology. According to Anthonis, the difference with their system is that the entire greenhouse needs to be organized around the harvesting robot. “We are using a system that can be used in existing greenhouses or on scaffolding cultivation.” Furthermore, the strawberry is harvested without its stem by the Belgian machine. “In Japan, strawberries are packed individually, so stems are not a problem. In punnets, the stems would cause puncture damages.”
The harvesting robot has to be combined with the Dribble, another innovation of Octinion. This autonomously driven, flat platform works with its own GPS, based on a set of beacons. The Dribble will be ready for market introduction at the start of 2017, and Octinion is already pursuing a number of opportunities. The robot is the first to form the base of the autonomously driven platform of the harvesting robot.
In cooperation with Research Centre Hoogstraten, further testing is currently being done in using the Dribble for combating powdery mildew with UV lighting. There is also interest in using the Dribble for spraying in greenhouses.
Next year, the machine will be tested at Research Centre Hoogstraten and with several cultivators. The harvesting machine should be on the commercial market in 2018. “It is a complex process and we are not there yet, but we do think we have the toughest part behind us now,” says CEO Tom Coen. And will it then be time to replace greenhouse harvesters? According to Anthonis, that is not the right approach. “We see this as an opportunity to keep cultivation in Belgium. In the strawberry sector, quality and flavour matter. You need experienced harvesters and we hear from cultivators that those are difficult to find. The harvesting robot offers an opportunity to keep that cultivation in Belgium.”
Impression of the prototype Strawberry Harvesting Robot, firstly the autonomously moving platform Dribble and finally the gripper:
What the robot should eventually look like:
For more information: Octinion Interleuvenlaan 46, B-3001 Heverlee-Leuven