Plymouth University spin-out Fieldwork Robotics is working with Bosch to develop a robot that harvests soft fruit and vegetables.
Bosch UK will collaborate with Fieldwork’s engineers to optimise the company’s soft robotic arms and develop software aimed at reducing the arms’ cost and increasing their speed.
Fieldwork Robotics is initially focused on developing robots to harvest raspberries as they are more delicate, more easily damaged than other soft fruits, and grow on bushes with complex foliage and berry distribution. Fieldwork, together with Plymouth University, is also developing proof-of-concept robots for other crops following interest from multinational agribusinesses.
According to Dr Martin Stoelen, a lecturer in robotics at Plymouth University and head of the Soft and Adaptive Robotics lab, the robot has different cameras with different functions.
“The ‘global’ cameras identify the fruits whilst the ‘local’ cameras support the final stages of the harvesting,” he said.
Software-based AI-visualisation techniques then help the robot identify those raspberries which meet the standards set by supermarkets in terms of ripeness, size, colour and other parameters, added Stoelen, who is also an Associate Professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.
Arms can be added to the modular robot depending on requirements. Stoelen said the current limitation is the size of the bushes which have been grown to maximise the picking efficiency of human harvesters.
“Our goal is to guarantee growers do not lose out because of the shortfall in human labour,” he said. “This labour shortfall was estimated at between 15 per cent to 30 per cent pre-Covid 19.”
To pick the fruit, the robot’s grippers apply the right force for each species of raspberry and the robot can also let growers know how much unripened fruit remains on the bush.
Each robot will be battery operated and the autonomy will vary with the amount and capacity of the batteries. “We are testing different approaches to optimise cost versus autonomy,” Stoelen said.
The plan is to have them running for a minimum of 20 hours a day, although in theory they could operate around the clock, he added.
“Our team is focused on improvements to the technology and reducing cost,” said Stoelen. “Bosch will get the technology ready for manufacture and many other aspects needed to commercialise the robots, such as error handling.”