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Solving bottleneck in blackberry industry with soft-handed picking robots

Students from Arkansas have built a prototype robotic blackberry picker. It was displayed June 9 during the Summer Blackberry Tour at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station's Fruit Research Station near Clarksville.

The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, which hosted the tour. The event was sponsored by the Arkansas Blackberry Growers Association and featured research updates and blackberry management presentations by the division's researchers and Cooperative Extension Service specialists.

More than 60 blackberry growers, industry members, students, and representatives from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture attended the tour. "Fresh-market blackberries are mostly hand-harvested to maintain the quality of this delicate fruit," said Threlfall, research scientist for the experiment station. "Labor shortages and costs, and the slow speed of hand-harvesting create a bottleneck for fresh-market blackberry industry expansion and market-ready supply."

Automated harvesting options like shaking the plants, cutting the stems or using rigid grippers are used for other fruits, Threlfall said. "These options are not feasible for harvesting fresh-market blackberries because they might cause quality issues like berry leakage or red drupelet reversion," she said.

Soft robotics offer a novel option for automatic harvesting by using compliant grippers of rubber or silicone, said Anthony Gunderman, a mechanical engineering graduate student who designed a robotic "hand." These materials allow grippers to grasp and manipulate delicate objects, like berries, with complex and varying shapes.

The robotic harvesting research group is comprised of food science graduate student Andrea Myers and mechanical engineering students Gunderman and J.A. Collins. Their faculty advisors are Threlfall from the department of food science and Yue Chen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

They set out to determine how the human hand grasps and plucks the berries so they could design a robotic gripper that could mimic the movements, touch and pressure. "Kayla is trying to answer questions about what is economically and culturally applicable for blackberry producers," Bertucci said. "The results will provide data to better inform the industry.

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