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First harvesting robot under development

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While robotic technology for weeding is already available, harvesting has so far proved difficult to automate, however, work at the University of Lincoln has led to development of such technology for harvesting broccoli. Marianne Curtis reports.

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Prototypes of the world’s first harvesting robot for commercial use are being developed following research using 3D imaging technology to recognise broccoli and enable cutting at the correct place at the University of Lincoln.

 

Professor Simon Pearson, director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, says the shape of broccoli makes it a good starting point when developing robotic harvesting technology. “It’s set up well and a robot can target it.”

 

See also: Japan creates ’autonomous farm’ run almost entirely by robots

 

Essential to commercialisation of the project has been the availability of relatively cheap 3D imaging technology in the last five years driven by the computer games market, he says. “Connect cameras cost about £150, whereas a professional one can cost £1,000s.”

 

3D vision

3D vision

Detection and localisation of broccoli heads in the field depends on 3D vision. “Previously the camera technology was not good enough but we’ve benefited from consumer technology.”

 

The camera is placed on the tractor front and the image is filtered to reveal the broccoli heads and where they are situated in space, explains Prof Pearson. “We can identify the clusters and recognise the broccoli with a 95.2 per cent level of accuracy.”

 

Many supermarkets demand broccoli with a 12cm (4.5in) diameter, but during streaming of the image where the broccoli is not in spec it can be left.

 

See also: Robot field day provides glimpse into the future

 

Actual cutting of the broccoli could be robotic or mechanical, says Prof Pearson. “We’re pretty confident in the imaging. Now we are talking to lots of people about the machine.”

 

Currently each broccoli harvester requires seven people – one on the tractor and one on the rig with five cutting the crop. With the development of robotic harvesting technology, this could be cut to one, says Prof Pearson.

 

Robotic weeding in three dimensions

Detection and localisation of broccoli heads in the field depends on 3D vision. “Previously the camera technology was not good enough but we’ve benefited from consumer technology.”

 

The camera is placed on the tractor front and the image is filtered to reveal the broccoli heads and where they are situated in space, explains Prof Pearson. “We can identify the clusters and recognise the broccoli with a 95.2 per cent level of accuracy.”

 

Many supermarkets demand broccoli with a 12cm (4.5in) diameter, but during streaming of the image where the broccoli is not in spec it can be left.

 

Actual cutting of the broccoli could be robotic or mechanical, says Prof Pearson. “We’re pretty confident in the imaging. Now we are talking to lots of people about the machine.”

 

Currently each broccoli harvester requires seven people – one on the tractor and one on the rig with five cutting the crop. With the development of robotic harvesting technology, this could be cut to one, says Prof Pearson.

Challenge

Challenge

“Labour is a challenge for the industry with low margin produce, with net margins of 2-4 per cent if you’re lucky. With the national minimum wage labour costs going up and also a problem with availability of people – there is a lack of people who want to do it.

 

“This is a global issue. In the USA they have the same problem and in Japan there is no net inward migration – it is a demographic issue – they will run out of people who want to do it.”

 

While there is international potential demand for the technology, Prof Pearson estimates the market for robotic broccoli harvesting technology in the UK is about 25 machines. He expects machines to be commercially available in about two years’ time.

 

See also: Could robots solve the problem of labour shortages?

 

AHDB is funding development of a prototype with robotic cutters; the project started at the beginning of June. Development of the imaging technology was co-funded by Innovate UK and Nick Fountain of Fountain and Sons.

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