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6 July 2018

Agrobot breaks ground for robotics in fruit picking

Agrobot is one of a growing number or robotics start-ups specializing in harvesting fruit, with increasingly convincing results. Based in Huelva, Spain, the firm has spent 10 years developing a robot specifically for strawberry picking, where there is potential for huge savings as well as cutting out a lot of back breaking human work.

Strawberry picking is one area where loss of jobs to automation will be broadly welcomed, since the work is onerous and brings risk of back problems for those doing it regularly. It is a big global industry worth over $16 billion a year, while Spain is by some distance Europe’s largest producer accounting for about 30% of the continent’s crop.

It is no surprise then that a Spanish company is at the cutting edge of a field that has long defied robotics developers, on account of the delicacy of the fruit. Agrobot has so far side stepped the problem by avoiding direct contact between robotics arms and the fruit body itself, instead encircling the stem and cutting there so that the fruit can be collected and stowed in trays as usual. It therefore does not eliminate human labor in the field but does greatly reduce bending down to pick off the fruit.

It has been quite a long haul for the company perfecting the robot, with an earlier version comprising 60 independent arms criticized around 2014 for being over-engineered and vulnerable to unreliability through having so many mechanical moving parts. It then brought out a simpler 16 arm version which has already demonstrated some success in the field and led to a crucial partnership with California based Driscoll’s, well known as a distributor of soft berries where it has cornered about one third of the $6 billion US market.

Driscoll’s has now invested in Agrobot and is conducting field trials in California of the robot with a view to commercial deployment. Driscoll’s support was led by its head of R&D strategy and emerging technology Nolan Paul, who has championed use of robotics across all its fruit picking business. As a result, Agrobot led by its CEO and founder Juan Bravo, has relocated the firm’s center of gravity to the Los Angeles area.

This is an example of the “Internet of Robotic Things,” which is expanding particularly quickly in agriculture – to the extent it is being seen as a second wave of automation more than a century after the internal combustion engine brought the tractor and the combine harvester with huge savings and increases in productivity.

Apart from fruit picking robotics is making an impact through unmanned drones in crop and pasture surveillance where it can fine tune planting programs and optimize irrigation. There are also trials of mobile robots roving around a farm for collection of environmental data on soils for example and associated with that automated on-demand watering of plants. While many farms have automated sprinkler systems they tend to operate merely on a timed basis, taking no account of need.