Scientists develop harvesting robots that could revolutionise farming practices

February 15, 2018 by Alan Williams, University of Plymouth
Credit: University of Plymouth

Scientists at the University of Plymouth are developing ground-breaking technology which could assist fruit and vegetable growers with the challenges they face in harvesting crops.

Increasing demand for home grown produce, coupled with concern about workforce shortages in the wake of Brexit, are leaving farmers across the UK facing a unique set of pressures.

To try and overcome this, researchers are working with producers in Cornwall to create robots which can work alongside existing workforces and ensure any gaps in productivity are filled.

The Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall (ABC) project is being led by Lecturer in Robotics Dr. Martin Stoelen, with key agricultural expertise provided by Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller. It also involves strategic partner Teagle Machinery Ltd in Truro, and partners Riviera Produce in Hayle and CNC Design Ltd in St Columb Major.

It has secured funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £10million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

Dr. Stoelen has previously developed technology that can harvest tomatoes, raspberries and sugar snap peas, and is now refocusing that to assist with the picking of cauliflower, broccoli, kale and cabbage, which are extensively grown in Cornwall.

At the heart of his vision is the concept of 'variable stiffness' because while most robot arms are rigid, the ability to flex and bend is vital in a more variable environment.

To counter that, Dr. Stoelen will build on one of his previous projects – the GummiArm – which has two arms and, in many ways, it moves more like a human than a machine.

Another of the challenges is how to enable the robot to identify the cauliflowers that are ready for harvest and to distinguish the precise part to be taken.

The solution to that is likely to come through cameras and sensors in its 'hands' that can make real-time 3-D models of the crop by assessing the information it assimilates, allowing it to recognise what to collect and what to leave.

With such robots recording images and touch-data from all over a field in real time, they also bring the possibility of gathering information that could be a variety of ways, potentially extending their application to beyond harvest.

Dr. Stoelen also believes the machines could be repurposed during the growing season, allowing the core technology to be rolled out to other fieldwork operations, and it could also be relevant to other brassicas and crops.

Through this project, and his spinout company Fieldwork Robotics Ltd, he is also exploring potential business models which would bring the technology to market within two to three years and which could involve the machines being owned by contractors, with farmers buying in the service when required.

Dr. Stoelen says, "Ultimately, machines such as this will make life easier and simpler as a farmer, but it's also cool technology which might encourage more young people to choose a career in agriculture. There are a lot of small producers here in Cornwall and they shouldn't be excluded from taking advantage of because it has the power to transform their lives, just as it can for larger producers."

Explore further: New sensor system ensures a safe harvest

Related Stories

New sensor system ensures a safe harvest

October 27, 2017

Tractors and combine harvesters are frequently operated on difficult terrain. Crops such as canola and corn grow at different densities; the field is sometimes muddy and is rocky at other times; and plants often obscure the ...

First ever working sweet-pepper harvesting robot

January 12, 2015

The European research project Clever Robots for Crops (CROPS) for the development of robotics in horticulture and forestry was recently accomplished. The project has been co-ordinated by Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture ...

Lightweight robots harvest cucumbers

February 1, 2018

Automation-intensive sectors such as the automotive industry are not the only ones to rely on robots. In more and more agricultural settings, automation systems are superseding strenuous manual labor. As part of the EU's ...

Recommended for you

1 in 3 Michigan workers tested opened fake 'phishing' email

March 16, 2018

Michigan auditors who conducted a fake "phishing" attack on 5,000 randomly selected state employees said Friday that nearly one-third opened the email, a quarter clicked on the link and almost one-fifth entered their user ...

Origami-inspired self-locking foldable robotic arm

March 15, 2018

A research team of Seoul National University led by Professor Kyu-Jin Cho has developed an origami-inspired robotic arm that is foldable, self-assembling and also highly-rigid. (The researchers include Suk-Jun Kim, Dae-Young ...

Tokyo Tech's six-legged robots get closer to nature

March 12, 2018

A study led by researchers at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) has uncovered new ways of driving multi-legged robots by means of a two-level controller. The proposed controller uses a network of so-called non-linear ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.