It’s clear why an industry struggling with falling revenues and staff shortages would be attracted by the prospect of robot staff—autonomous beings that don’t tire and can work to an exceptionally high standard for very long shifts.
So it goes with farming, where advancements in robotics and machine learning are promising to shore up the gaps filled by rising labour costs and falling rates of seasonal workers.
Fieldwork Robotics, an offshoot of the University of Plymouth, has created a new pincer-like machine capable of sizing up a raspberry’s position and maturity — before plucking the fruit from its stem and placing it into a waiting punnet.
The team predicts that the as-yet unnamed berry picker will be able to pick 25,000 raspberries every day. That’s 10,000 berries more than the average human haul over an eight-hour shift.
Dr Martin Stoelen, a lecturer in robotics at Plymouth University, is the man behind the machine. He reportedly selected the fruit—widely considered one of the most difficult soft fruits to pick—so that the technology could then be used to pick other berries, fruits and vegetables. His robots have been trialled in China, where they’ve been let loose on cauliflowers and tomatoes.
The small fruit industry has long bemoaned the decreasing access to seasonal workers, most recently pointing to the Brexit-related weakness of the pound against the euro and the successful work by traditional strongholds Romania and Poland to convince their populations to stay and work at home instead.
The Guardian adds that although an extra 2,500 berry pickers will come over to the UK from Ukraine and Moldova through a government pilot scheme, this will not be enough to plug the gaps. The National Farmers Union has this year reportedly identified over 5,000 unfilled vacancies on farms.
Similar vegetable and fruit picking products have been created across the world, using a variety of slicing and plucking techniques on an individual or ‘tractor-like’ scale.