Technology is constantly advancing. In fact, one might consider the “boom” in technological advances to have continued unabated since the Industrial Revolution. While most home gardeners still grow their strawberry plants they way they have for centuries, the commercial strawberry industry has corralled their own technological advances throughout the years. The specialized equipment that is currently widespread automates many of the strawberry-specific cultivation tasks. Technology allows for mounded rows with targeted irrigation and plastic mulch. To see videos of said technology in action, view the post on growing strawberry plants commercially.
One of the latest advances in strawberry farming was developed with funds from the California Strawberry Commission: a strawberry picking robot. While the strawberry picking robot is nowhere near ready to eliminate strawberry picking jobs, it may eventually increase productivity while decreasing labor costs by automating the most time-intensive aspect of strawberry farming: picking the strawberries.
The Idea for a Strawberry Picking Robot
The inspiration for the specific strawberry picking robot featured in this post (yes, there are others around that are less impressive and less advanced) was found in a seemingly unrelated contest. The DARPA Grand Challenge (a competition for the development of driverless cars) prompted the formation of Robotic Harvesting, LLC by the California Strawberry Commission. “After all,” thought the organizers, “if cars can navigate hundreds of miles of roads, why can't a robot navigate a few inches to pick a strawberry?”
Once the idea found wings (and funding), the new company was helped by researchers linked to UCLA, Caltech, and Cornell. With the help of some very intelligent people, the strawberry picking robot moved from imagination to prototype.
Strawberry Picking Robot: Technology
The technology used by the strawberry picking robot is impressive. The automated process is made possible by using a stereo vision camera (basically allowing the robot to “see” in 3D like humans can) to discern where the strawberries are. Then, specialized software quickly analyzes them to differentiate ripe from unripe berries. Next, the robotic arm is extended to the analyzed strawberry where its three fingers clamp the strawberry, pluck it from the strawberry plant, and deposit it onto a conveyor belt.
To see the prototype in action, watch the videos here:
The combination of the stereo camera and the advanced software improves dramatically on agricultural robots of decades past. Automated harvesting robots have been a sought-after prize since the 1980s. Back then, however, the software and computational ability of the computers were much too slow to be viable. Now things are different. The speed at which processes can be computed makes a strawberry picking robot like this less fantasy and more reality.
In fact, in controlled environments, the strawberry picking robot can rapidly and accurately pick strawberries in as little as two seconds. Feel free to see for yourself:
The technology of the strawberry picking robot has three main components. First, the strawberry data collector collects information about the location of the strawberries by scanning both above and below the strawberry leaf canopy. Second, the mobile platform moves at a programmable rate and serves as support for the picking arm and harvested strawberries/supplies. And, thirdly, the stereo vision camera which provides the required “visual” data to the arm so it can pick the correct strawberries.
Challenges for the Strawberry Picking Robot
Strawberry picking robots are not ready for the mainstream just yet. Indeed, despite the tremendous technological advances and uses found within the strawberry picking robot, there are still things that this strawberry robot still needs help accomplishing. There are certain concerns that need to be addressed.
The strawberry picking robot does a flawless job in the controlled environment of a laboratory. The real world isn't quite as clean. Despite being able to look under leaves, anyone who has picked strawberries knows that some of them are hard to find. They nestle behind and under leaves and stems. The strawberry picking arm may have difficulty choosing strawberries that are hard to reach with its large mechanical arm. Plus, there is still the possibility that rotten or diseased berry is accidentally placed with the rest of the berries (although the software is supposed to reduce or eliminate these errors).
Strawberries bruise easily. If you have watched the videos above, you have seen the snap grabbing of the berries. The force can be programmed into the motion. However, some berries don't release from the plant as easily as others. The grip and firmness of the harvesting could damage the berry or plant if the strawberry picking robot holds on too firmly. Or, the strawberry could slip from its grasp if the grip is not firm enough.
Finally, there is a cost factor associated this this or any purchase of farm equipment. New and advanced technology is rarely cheap. But if you are interested in trialing the machine for your strawberry farm or would like more information, you can email Robotic Harvesting, LLC at firstname.lastname@example.org or call them at (805) 231-0541. Additionally, their website is here.
Future Strawberry Picking Robots
The future will likely bring more and more refined adaptations to this spectacular robot (and maybe even the development of other strawberry picking robots). The likely next step for the Robotic Harvesting, LLC prototype is the inclusion of multiple picking arms. Think of the improvement with, say, four rapidly picking arms mounted under the mobile platform.
The problems mentioned above are also likely to be solved through additional technological innovations or refinements. Should strawberry picking robots strike fear into your heart for some reason, you will always be able to go strawberry picking at a pick your own strawberry farm near you. But, the chances are good that a strawberry picking robot will perfectly pick the strawberries you buy at some point in the not-too-distant future.