On the continent, meanwhile, Belgian developer Octinion, also working with UK growers, has developed a picking arm mounted on a self-driving trolley that it says is competitive with human picking in price, speed and thoroughness. Rather than snipping the stalk above the berry, as the Dogtooth model does, this uses a pair of cushioned plastic claws to twist off the berry.
In the USA, which also faces a dearth of human pickers, two developers, Agrobot and Harvest Croo, are close to launching automated picking rigs designed for open-field strawberry crops. Relative behemoths compared to the European designs, these span several rows of soil-grown strawberries, though Agrobot's has also been trialled on tunnel-grown table-top strawberries.
Taking the wider view
Sounding a note of caution, University of Kent industry engagement manager Simon Barnes pointed out during the Fruit Focus discussion that a report by international professional services firm PwC earlier this year showed the potential for automation in farming "is much lower than other sectors". He said: "If I were a global robotics company, I might look at those sectors higher up the list."
But he suggested tech developed for other sectors could also find a role in berry production, noting: "Different crops will suit different forms of automation." Exoskeletons "can reduce the stress on workers, such as their heartbeat, allowing greater productivity", while with augmented reality devices such smart glasses, "we can imagine pickers being guided in the tunnel to pick the right fruit", he said.
Drones could be used for transport and even pruning as well as crop monitoring, he suggested. "[Global logistics firm] UPS says it can use drones to deliver at one-fifth of the cost, though they can’t currently take a heavy payload."
While "co-bots" are already making inroads in manufacturing, "regulations say they can’t work as fast as humans", he pointed out. "There is an injury risk of it smacking someone, though it could be programmed to speed up when no one is around."
The costs element raises another issue, he added. "Now is the time to make the technology and economics stack up. How do you use them for 200-250 days a year, not just 50? You need something flexible — a ‘Swiss Army robot’."
Dogtooth’s Ed Herbert added: "Orchard fruit is also a potentially huge market, but more challenging in terms of capital because, unlike strawberries, it’s a very concentrated season."
He also told growers to take a broad view of the term. "‘Robots’ have been assembling cars for decades, but they have no intelligence." By contrast, at Fruit Focus host NIAB EMR’s demonstration WET Centre, "decisions on managing the crop are made automatically based on sensory data".
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