Tip of the iceberg? New Vegebot could help plug agriculture labour…

Lettuce-picking ROBOT could soon help farmers trying to harvest their crops as migrant labour from Europe dwindles

  • Britain today is completely dependent on foreign workers to pick fruit and veg
  • Engineers from Cambridge developed a prototype vegetable-picking robot
  • Already, labour shortages driven by economic shifts have left produce rotting  
  • Vegebot shows the use of robotics in agriculture could be expanded in future 
  • The robot has now been successfully tested in a variety of field conditions in co-operation with a Cambridgeshire grower 

Engineers have developed a vegetable-picking robot to complete the challenging task of harvesting lettuces which could help plug agriculture labour gaps.

The Vegebot uses a computer vision system to photograph a section of a field and then analyses it to identify which lettuce are ripe for picking. 

Robots like the Vegebot, built by the University of Cambridge, could help ease the problems caused by a lack of migrant workers from Europe as willing workers dwindle. 

Although the  prototype is nowhere near as fast as a human worker at picking iceberg lettuces, it shows how robotics in agriculture could be expanded in future. 

HOW DOES THE VEGEBOT PICK HEALTHY LETTUCES?

Using a robotic arm, Vegebot grips the lettuce cutting the base e to pick it, without crushing or otherwise damaging it. 

It first identifies the target crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a particular lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested. 

Finally, it cuts the lettuce from the rest of the plant without crushing it so that it is ‘supermarket-ready’.

The overhead camera on the Vegebot takes an image of the lettuce field and first identifies all the lettuces in the image, and then, for each lettuce, classifies whether it should be harvested or not. 

A second camera on the Vegebot is positioned near the cutting blade, and helps ensure a smooth cut. 

Around 75,000 temporary migrant workers are relied upon every year to pick fruit and vegetables in British fields.

Most currently come from Eastern Europe, but with the end of free movement, British growers may have to look into other methods for labour. 

Britain today is completely dependent on foreign workers to pick its fruit and vegetables.

According to the National Farmers Union, an industry lobbying group, of the seasonal workers in the fields last year picking fruit and vegetables, barely one per cent was British. 

Already, labour shortages driven by economic shifts have left produce rotting in the strawberry fields. 

Many engineers have been testing their own prototypes in anticipation for this shortage, including one robot which picks healthy strawberries, enough to supply tennis-lovers at Wimbledon for one week. 

Another prototype by the University of Plymouth plucks raspberries from a plant and carefully places it in a punnet.

So far, crops such as potatoes have been harvested mechanically at scale for decades, but iceberg lettuce has resisted automation. 

Researchers initially tested Vegebot in a laboratory but have now successfully tested it in several lettuce fields in Cambridgeshire.

‘Every field is different, every lettuce is different,’ said co-author Simon Birrell, from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. 

‘But if we can make a robotic harvester work with iceberg lettuce, we could also make it work with many other crops.’

Using a robotic arm, Vegebot grips the lettuce cutting the base to pick it, without crushing or otherwise damaging it.

It first identifies the target crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a particular lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested. 

Finally, it cuts the lettuce from the rest of the plant without crushing it so that it is ‘supermarket-ready’.

Robots like these which are engineered to pick fruit and vegetables in British fields could help to ease the problems caused by a lack of migrant workers. The prototype is nowhere near as fast as a human worker at picking iceberg lettuces

Using a robotic arm, Vegebot grips the lettuce cutting the base to pick it, without crushing or otherwise damaging it. It first identifies the target crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a particular lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested

Co-author Josie Hughes said: ‘For a human, the entire process takes a couple of seconds, but it’s a really challenging problem for a robot.’

The Vegebot has two main components: a computer vision system and a cutting system.

The overhead camera on the Vegebot takes an image of the lettuce field and first identifies all the lettuces in the image, and then, for each lettuce, classifies whether it should be harvested or not.

A lettuce might be rejected because it is not yet mature, or it might have a disease that could spread to other lettuces in the harvest.

The researchers developed and trained a machine-learning algorithm on example images of lettuces.

Once the Vegebot could recognise healthy lettuces in the lab, it was then trained in the field, in a variety of weather conditions, on thousands of real lettuces.

Crops such as potatoes and wheat have been harvested mechanically at scale for decades, but iceburg lettuce has resisted automation. It first identifies the target crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested

Many engineers have been testing their own prototypes in anticipation for this shortage. The ‘Rubion’ is programmed to only pick ‘perfect’ strawberries, with just 14 machines being able to gather enough to keep the tournament topped up for seven days

A £700,000 machine built by the University of Plymouth and spin-off firm Fieldwork Robotics has succeeded in plucking a raspberry from a plant and carefully placing it in a punnet (pictured)

A second camera on the Vegebot is positioned near the cutting blade, and helps ensure a smooth cut.

The researchers were also able to adjust the pressure in the robot’s gripping arm so that it held the lettuce firmly enough not to drop it, but not so firm as to crush it.

The force of the grip can be adjusted for other crops.

‘We’ve still got to speed our Vegebot up to the point where it could compete with a human, but we think robots have lots of potential in agri-tech,’ said Ms Hughes.

Co-author Julia Cai said: ‘At the moment, harvesting is the only part of the lettuce life cycle that is done manually, and it’s very physically demanding.’

In future, robotic harvesters could help address problems with labour shortages in agriculture, and could also help reduce food waste by being trained to pick only ripe vegetables.

The research was published in The Journal of Field Robotics. 

WHEN WILL ROBOT FARMERS BE A REALITY?

Leading agricultural minds are working on developing robots to increase the efficiency of plant harvesting. 

Harper Adams University in Shropshire are developing a robot that don’t harvest crops until they are perfect, eradicating wonky and inedible vegetable.

Farmers currently harvest fields all at once, in a practice known as slaughter harvesting. 

But this method leads to up to 60 per cent of the crop being wasted, because it is either wonky or inedible. 

Engineers are working on machines that can autonomously plant seeds, weed, water and spray without a farmer.

The robots can also be programmed to only pick crops where they are perfectly ripe.

Developer of the autonomous veg pickers, Professor Simon Blackmore, said: ‘I am trying to develop a completely new agricultural mechanisation system based on small smart machines.

‘We are developing laser weeding, droplet application where only 100 per cent of the chemical goes onto the target leaf, selective harvesting where we can grade the product at the point of harvest.’

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