California is suffering a shortage of strawberry pickers due to tough immigration laws and a lack of local workers. But this hard-to-solve problem is finding a solution in the unlikely location of Belgium. A Belgian Research and Development company is developing a very gentle robot that can delicately pluck strawberries straight from the bush and place them softly in a basket. Using machine vision the machine can identify ripe strawberries and using a 3d printed ‘hand’ harvest the perfect fruit. Its vision can also estimate when the unripe fruit will ripen.
The company, Octonion, believes this machine will be the future of strawberry picking not just in California, but in other berry picking regions that are facing workers crises. CEO of Octonion, Tom Coen sheds light on the problem.
“Agricultural labor, at this point, is not sustainable, in the sense that it’s often people who come a long way–a few thousand kilometers–do that work, and after the season they go back, or people come over as immigrants and do that kind of job to get started, and afterwards move on to other, better jobs.”
While the machine is not quite as fast as a human, it is economically profitable as the cost per berry is similar to a real worker. Coen says “We’re a bit slower, but we’re already economically profitable because the cost per berry is similar.” The machine is designed to meet the strict working conditions that strawberry pickers must meet. Fruit cannot be put in the basket with the stem attached in case it injures other fruit and as the fruit is often picked straight in the containers it will be sold from, more red than green should be visible on the fruit immediately seen. The machine can accomplish all these requirements while still operating at a reasonable overall cost.
The strawberry industry is moving away from the traditional field methods of production to a system where the fruit is grown in trays, called “tabletops”. This method allows the fruit to be grown in greenhouses and is much better for the introduction of robots as well as the industry's dwindling population of human workers who don’t need to hunch over the low growing fruits. The tabletop method has other benefits for growers, as it can significantly increase yield while simultaneously reducing water requirements.
The tabletop method is part of the move towards more vertical farming systems where food is grown in smaller and smaller footprints. Coen believes that the move to vertical farming will continue to increase as the focus shifts to greener and more ecological farming methods and as consumers demand more locally grown food. Coen says, “Something like 80% of the strawberry production in the U.S. comes from California, which means if you eat a strawberry in New York it has been on a truck for something like two days. So both ecologically and economically, that’s not really okay.” The robot is close to the end of its testing in its strawberry patch in the lab and will soon be out in the real fields. Its inventors are also looking to expand the robots picking repertoire into other greenhouse-grown vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
The robot is close to the end of its testing in its strawberry patch in the lab and will soon be out in the real fields. Its inventors are also looking to expand the robots picking repertoire into other greenhouse-grown vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.