A new robot for picking strawberries from Octinion, an R & D company from Leuven, was recently unveiled in Hoogstraten. After 2 years of development, the robot was able to pluck strawberries like a human, without damaging the strawberries and without leaving a stalk on the fruit. Moreover, the robot works faster than the best pickers, and can even work through the night.

The strawberry-picking robot was unveiled at the 10th international strawberry mechanisation and demonstration trade fair in Hoogstraten. It concerns a prototype that can pick strawberries completely autonomously. The robot is able to pick 70% of all ripe strawberries without damage, free of stems and without picking part of the plant at the same time. The quality of the harvesting, the picking speed, and the sorting capabilities are comparable to those of experienced pickers, Octinion claims. There are additional benefits in the areas of quality management, crop monitoring and precision farming. There is no need to make structural changes in the greenhouse to use the robot.

3D vision and indoor GPS

The robot is designed for shelf cultivation, a method widespread in Belgium and neighbouring countries. The robot can pick both indoors and outdoors. The device, which looks like a trolley bearing strawberry trays, moves around autonomously using a sort of indoor GPS, because a regular GPS signal does not work properly in a greenhouse. 3D vision is used to locate ripe strawberries. The patented robotic arm moves and picks in the same way as a human. A system to detect and leave rotten strawberries is still under development.

Precision farming

“The unique advantage of the robot is the better quality,” says Tom Coen, CEO of Octinion. “Integrated quality measurement means more accurate sorting is possible. It even allows precision farming by forwarding important information, such as a crop forecast, to the grower. Even the best pickers can’t compete with the robot, which does its work at a constant speed, even at night.” The robot’s soft rubber 3D-printed arm picks 24 kilos of strawberries per hour, while a human can harvest only 12 to 20 kilos per hour. Human pickers will not become completely obsolete, however, because human hands are still needed for hard-to-reach fruits, which the robot’s cameras cannot easily detect.

The beta version is expected in early 2017, and will be trialled at a number of growers. Current expectations are that the robot will be available commercially in 2018, although nothing has yet been said about the price, The inventors are looking at using a lease scheme.

Source/Photo: Vilt/Octinion.