Will Soft Robotics tackle labour issues on the farm?

Wimbledon fans, who consume 34 thousand kilos of strawberries every year, could soon get their strawberries picked by a small group of new robots, developed in Europe, that use photonics to detect a fruit, and are capable of gathering enough berries for the championships in less than a week.

These type of robots are made of malleable materials such as silicone and other polymers instead of the usual metal. These materials give robots organic characteristics, replicating the way muscles work and allowing robots to move and perform human-like tasks that are impossible for old-school metallic machines.

Given the flexibility of the materials, robots can now pick soft fruits without damaging them.

Another potential feature of the robots of the future is the ability to self-repair, emulating the human body’s ability to heal. Current research is mainly looking at improving the materials used and devising ways for them to avoid chemical reactions, but in the UK, researchers at Cambridge University are currently working on developing self-healing materials.

There are multiple possible use cases in healthcare, manufacturing, or defence, where an army of self-repairing robots would be incredibly useful.

Robots on the Farm

Engineer and Scientist, Tim Chin, explains why he thinks soft robotics and agriculture go hand in hand.

“A specific application of soft robotics that interested me is agriculture.,” he explains.

“Most automatic solutions for harvesting only operate on large sturdy crops. There exist few mechanisms for collecting smaller crops, but many are violent and tend to damage the plant in the process.

“There have been advances by companies such as Soft Robotics Inc, that incorporate soft elements into their robotic grippers. These grippers still depend on the object of interest to have some sturdiness.

“Such predicaments led to a research project I participated in. The projects goal was to explore the autonomous picking of light fragile berries, specifically raspberries,” he continued.

” A unique gripper was desired for that task. Considering the fragility of raspberries, this was an opportune problem to solve with soft robotics.

“The generated idea involved creating a tube like structure that would move up to a berry bush and a isolate a raspberry from its neighbours.

“The end effector would then further slide up the stem of the berry and then inflate its soft robotic sacks. The sacks do not directly grab on to the berry. Instead, the sacks apply a light pressure on the back of the berry that connects to the peduncle of the plant.

“The entire tube then pulls away, push the berry off its stem. This is similar to how a person pulls of a berry.”

CTO & co-founder of robotics firm Octinion, Dr Jan Anthonis said: "Our robot, Rubion, doesn't need a break or a holiday and doesn't complain about the weather. Rotting and unpicked fruit from a lack of human pickers on farms all over the world could soon be tackled with robots."

Rubion uses photonic sensors to detect the wavelengths of light, or the 'signatures' given off from a ripe, red strawberry according to a pre-programmed set of characteristics the RGB camera built into the 'eye' of the robot. "Just like you know what a plump, juicy red strawberry looks like," Anthonis explained,

"Rubion can do this mathematically, first looking for the infrared spectroscopic heat signatures given off from a fruit, getting a perfect 'hit' every time. The arm has our very own patented 'soft touch gripper' that doesn't do any more damage to the strawberries than a human would. It picks the strawberry literally like a person without cutting or burning the stem, but by actually picking a berry."

Science, Research and Innovation Minister George Freeman said the Government sees the UK as a global leader in developing AI technology and related jobs.

“We have been making concerted efforts to improve the skills pipeline, not just to ensure that those high-technology skills are there but to ensure that all have an opportunity to participate in this economy.

“That is why we have increasingly focused on reskilling and upskilling – so that, where there is a level of displacement, there is redeployment rather than unemployment.

Source: Agritech Future