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Strawberry-picking robots ease worker shortage

With years of research behind them, fruit farmers are turning to robots to help with harvest amid a human worker shortage.

Burlington Berries at Cressy, in northern Tasmania, has shipped out a fleet of 16 robots from the UK to help with picking over the summer.

The farm trialled its first robot in collaboration with British company Dogtooth Technologies nearly seven years ago.

Each robot picks about four berries a minute and growers say the technology is giving them "peace of mind" as ongoing labour shortages plague the industry.

In Australia, the federal government and private investors have funded the development of fruit-picking robots.

But there are particular challenges using mechanical picking for soft fruits, like strawberries.

Rachel MacKenzie from Berries Australia said robots were now very common in blueberry packhouses, but it was less common to use them for harvesting.

"Blueberries are more robust and I believe some companies are exploring mechanical harvesting for non-premium varietal," she said.

"With increasing labour costs I can foresee that mechanical blueberry harvesting may become more common in the next five years, but it is further away for rubus and strawberries.

"Obviously robots don't get COVID, they don't roll an ankle, they're pretty reliable workers."

"Labour costs represent at least 60 per cent of the cost of production for berries, so if there was any way for those to be reduced then there would be significant uptake."

How do the robots work?

The robots roll on tracks between rows of strawberries grown on tables under poly tunnels.

Dozens of cameras are built into them, allowing them to take images of each strawberry.

The robots have two arms, which decide if a berry is the right size and shape to pick its stem.

More cameras take a 360-degree image of the berry to determine its ripeness, weight and measure 17 potential defects in the fruit.

The strawberry is then placed in a punnet or rejected into a different tray.

Eva Thilderkvist, who employed by the robots' developers to manage them, said the robots work alongside humans.

"They're not a replacement for your workforce, it's more of a supplement for your capacity on your farm," she said.

"It's peace of mind for the growers in case you can't get the workforce you need.

"Obviously robots don't get COVID, they don't roll an ankle, they're pretty reliable workers."

Picking jobs change

Joao Dos Santos, an employee from Timor Leste, has been re-assigned from picking fruit to managing six robots on the farm.

"If something is wrong, we just check in with the tablet [that controls the robots]," he said.

"Because the robots are numbered, we know exactly where they are."

These robots also collect data from the images they take, to help with predicting crop yields and the amount of fruit that needs harvesting in the future.

So are robots here to stay on farms? Burlington Berries managing director Kate Sutherland thinks so.

"Soft fruit is just that and it presents many challenges," she said.

"I'm sure my grandchildren will say, 'Did you really used to pick fruit by hand Granny?'"

Night picking potential

Trials have started in the UK to see if these robots can successfully pick berries at night, as picking fruit during cooler temperatures considerably extends its shelf life.

Ms Thilderkvist said this would be a game changer for the industry.

"Each of these arms are equipped with LED lights, as well as a few more lights on the chassis," she said.

"As they go along they can identify the berries in a much better way than a human could possibly do."

Source: ABC News


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