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Picking up strawberries: it is harder than it looks

Octinion’s robotic arm gently grasps the strawberry, snaps it off, and drops it in the punnet. Image credit: Octinion

Harvesting crops (and fruits…) used to make up to 40% of the total cost of farming. This is no longer so, thanks to automation. Robotic machines, ever more powerful, and smart, are not just taking the labour off this activity, they are slashing cost. They are so effective that we know have harvesting machines that are moving from field to field, owned by third parties and providing harvest services.

However when it comes to harvesting strawberries the human touch is still required. The reason is that selecting the strawberry that is just right (in terms of ripeness) among many and picking it up without harming the strawberry nor the  ones that remains on the plant is an extremely difficult activity for a machine.

There have been a number of companies trying different methods that could be within the reach of our present technology (see the photo of an Octinion’s robotic arm with soft pinchers to pick up a strawberry without causing any damage) but so far we have got only prototypes that end up not being economically/industrially affordable.

Now Traptic, a company specialising in farming robots, has announced they have a solution. Their robot can pick up 100,000 strawberry a day, and pick them up in the right way not pulling the fruit from the plant but cutting the stem and gently depositing the strawberry in the basket. And repeating that 100,000 times a day, without getting nor tired nor bored! It has been developed for Bowery, relatively new company, founded in 2015, that has set up vertical farms in the outskirt of cities like New York and Philadelfia.

The robot has been designed to work in vertical farms, inside buildings. It is an evolution of a robot that is being used (also in vertical farming) to harvest lettuce. It uses computer vision (and related AI) and sensors. The robot is, actually, a robotic arm installed on autonomous vehicles that move along the strawberry rows. It can also be used for pruning and thinning leaves.

Its next job? Pollinating strawberry flowers without having to rely on insects.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.