Nov 18, 2017 | By David

A Belgian engineering company is looking to digitize the way we harvest produce, one strawberry at a time. Heverlee-based startup Octinion recently developed a strawberry-picking robot equipped with machine vision and a 3D printed “hand.” Its advanced computer vision system can determine when a strawberry is ripe and ready to be picked, while the additively manufactured arm delivers damage-free produce – all at a rate similar to human workers.

Octinion CEO Tom Coen believes the machine will be the future of strawberry-picking, replacing migrant workers in California and other large berry-growing regions. “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 – [to] do that work,” Coen says.

It’s a contentious topic nowadays, as the Trump administration continues to target newcomer communities in the US, many of whom work in the agriculture industry. The massive strawberry farms of California are particularly integral to these communities, supplying a source of income to migrant workers and their families.

Over the past two decades, however, the industry has increasingly struggled to remain afloat. According to recent reports, the number of fieldworkers in California has shrunk nearly 40 percent since 2002, a shortage that economists credit largely to tightened immigration policies as well as a stronger Mexican economy. The labour crisis is real. But for those who manage to remain out in the fields, new value is being placed on their labour. Fewer workers means an influx of competitive wages and other benefits such as health insurance, childcare, or even a piece of the land.

Replacing those fieldworkers with a robotic strawberry-picker would inevitably terminate those opportunities, sacrificing the livelihood of thousands of migrant labourers. For farmers hardpressed to make ends meet, however, there’s little wiggle room when it comes to cutting costs. As seen with Octinion’s robot, machine labour increasingly presents a viable solution that’s getting harder and harder to ignore financially.

“We’re a bit slower,” Coen says of the robot compared to a human strawberry picker, “but we’re already economically profitable because the cost per berry is similar.” Even though the machine isn’t as fast as a human worker, Coen is confident that his robot offers other advantages. Octinion’s website boasts that the machine’s picking speed, picking quality, and sorting quality are all comparable to a skilled human picker, but the robotic strawberry picker offers advanced quality monitoring “to allow sorting, crop monitoring and precision farming.”

The robot is mounted onto an autonomous platform called Dribble, which uses beacons to navigate around greenhouses and requires no structural changes to be made to the facility.

A patented soft touch gripper picks the strawberry without damaging the fruit, and the 3D printed arm has a capacity of picking one strawberry every 3 seconds. All in all, the machine picks about 70% of all ripe strawberries damage free, at a rate that’s comparable to human fieldworkers. Whether farmers opt to hand their fields over to machine labour remains to be seen – the robot strawberry-picker is still in its testing phase – but Cohen remains optimistic that he’s on the brink of something big, for better or for worse.

Octinion will begin pilot testing with strawberry farmers in 2018, and is preparing for the commercial launch of the harvester in 2019. The company is already looking to expand the robot’s applications into greenhouse-grown vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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40 wrote at 11/23/2017 10:47:11 PM:

i would love to have this back at home to help me pick my strawberry then eat them

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