Four Growers has recently added cucumbers to its harvesting robot. This is just the latest addition to Four Growers’ harvesting robot, which is one of the first robots to be faster than humans at picking. “When it comes to picking tomatoes, our robot is faster than a person,” says Brandon Contino from Four Growers. Specifically, the picking speed of the robot has achieved around 63 kilos of cherry/grape tomatoes per hour and is averaging 43 kg / hr. But how could they achieve something that many failed to do? According to Brandon, it’s all a matter of different types of innovations and technologies.
Brandon Contino, Four Growers
A robot platform
“We built our own AI architecture, and have built our own dataset to teach the AI. We have been able to train our AI not only on physical information, but we also wanted it to understand certain concepts - with regards to plant architecture for instance. Then, we leveraged that additional information with a more effective and efficient custom planner,” he explains. This means that Four Growers taught the AI running the robot everything about tomatoes, and once the machine fully grasped that, Four Growers instructed the AI how its movement should work when interacting with the learned concepts. After all, snacking tomatoes are very cluttered, and it can be challenging for a robot not only to pick them without damage but also to understand which cluster is ripe and which is not. Of course, such a brain couldn’t work without the brawn: the final piecemeal is the gripper. This doesn’t look or act like a claw, but rather it is a gentle pick vacuum technology that pulls the produce, instead of grabbing each single fruit. “This greatly reduces any risk of damage to the tomato. On top of that, the suction makes the picking much, much faster than a claw would.”
Four Growers, however, didn’t build the robot solely for picking tomatoes. “We built a harvesting system,” Brandon points out. “We built a platform, the software, and engineered the gripper in that way because we knew we wanted to harvest different crops.” The company has indeed recently added cucumbers as part of the commitment to add new crops to their list. “All we have to do is to swap the gripper, and train the AI vision on the new crop. The latest addition of cucumbers is just another proof that the concept is truly crop agnostic.” Candidly, the robot serves as a harvesting platform whose AI and movement patterns can accommodate different crops.
So, what’s next after tomatoes and cucumbers?
“In my opinion, the opportunities we have are limitless,” Brandon continues. “At the same time, the main goal for us is to continue to deploy our systems on tomatoes and cucumbers in customer greenhouses. We’re keeping a close eye on strawberries and also exploring peppers. We’re able to use our AI not only for harvesting, but also to provide new insights to our customers about their growing practices. Our customers have already been asking for features that we’re beginning to deliver like yield heatmaps and yield forecasting.”
Since this is a robotic harvesting platform, Four Growers’ robot could also go beyond food. “The core tech we built could also be beneficial to ornamental growers, for instance: imagine the robot enters the greenhouse, picks your flowers, and packages them right away. This would greatly improve a grower’s logistics, and thus their bottom line. So far, we haven’t done a deep dive exploration in ornamentals, but we have all it takes to support growers in that space too.”
Four Growers is now commercializing and scaling their systems. “We’ve now had systems running daily in our customer operations in both Netherlands and North America since the start of this year and as far as I’m aware, we’ve picked more tomatoes autonomously that have been sold to retailers than any other company. As we look to the future, there’s an exciting opportunity to develop new seed genetics that are more efficient with automated harvesting. Our collaboration with Syngenta explores a diverse range of varieties, and we're uncovering fascinating insights into their structures. In the coming years, we expect to see tailored varieties that align with our system.
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