The 'Vegebot' is a vegetable-picking robot that uses machine learning to identify and harvest a commonplace, but challenging, agricultural crop. The bot was developed by a team at the University of Cambridge, was initially trained to recognise and harvest iceberg lettuce in a lab setting. It has now been successfully tested in a variety of field conditions in cooperation with G's Growers, a local fruit and vegetable co-operative.
Although the prototype is nowhere near as fast or efficient as a human worker, it demonstrates how the use of robotics in agriculture might be expanded, even for crops like iceberg lettuce which are particularly challenging to harvest mechanically. The results are published in The Journal of Field Robotics.
Crops such as potatoes and wheat have been harvested mechanically at scale for decades, but many other crops have to date resisted automation. Iceberg lettuce is one such crop. Although it is the most common type of lettuce grown in the UK, iceberg is easily damaged and grows relatively flat to the ground, presenting a challenge for robotic harvesters.
The Vegebot first identifies the 'target' crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a particular lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested, and finally cuts the lettuce from the rest of the plant without crushing it so that it is 'supermarket ready'. "For a human, the entire process takes a couple of seconds, but it's a really challenging problem for a robot," said co-author Josie Hughes.