In the future, fruit growers may have a single robot to assist with harvesting, pruning and weeding throughout the year. In the Netherlands, Agro Food Robotics’ Next Fruit 4.0 project is developing pruning and pruning shears that use image analysis to automatically identify the correct fruit and branches.
Sometimes apple, pear, raspberry and other fruit growers are short on hands. The problem increases dramatically during the harvest season, but labor is also scarce for other businesses. “There is a huge need for automation,” said Jochen Hemming, a researcher at Agro Food Robotics. “Unfortunately, the fruit harvest is not fully developed. Plus, it will be very expensive.”
In the Next Fruit 4.0 project, Hemming and his colleagues are working with fruit farming and robotics companies to develop a multifunctional robot. After all, the harvest lasts only a few weeks, while the same cart with a robotic arm can be operated in the orchard quite often.
“We think the robot should do more than just pick. It should be doing things like weeding, pruning, and cutting flowers as well. Farmers would be more eager to buy such a robot,” explains Jochen.
Robot with different hands
This multifunctional robot will consist of an autonomous vehicle with a storage box and a robot arm. The farmer can add different hands. It will also have a detection system that captures images that the robot analyzes using artificial intelligence.
During harvest, she can walk around, locate the ripe fruits, take them off the tree and put them in the trash. This seems simple, but it isn’t. “The problem is that it’s so different in nature. No apple or pear is the same, and the tree is a complex three-dimensional structure. The robot has to be able to handle that.”
Photo, WUR: Project Next Fruit 4.0 multifunctional robot.
pear picking movement
Apple clutch development is very advanced all over the world; Not that pear. Hence, researchers focus on it. “Picking pears versus apples requires different movements. The stems of the pears must remain adherent; otherwise they rot faster. For the correct harvesting movement, not only the position of the fruit, but the direction as well, is important,” Yuchen continues. He also wants to see if a force sensor can help the clutch with this delicate work.
Over the past year, researchers have been collecting images from orchards and developing software that can locate pears in trees. The clutch will be tested outdoors for the first time during the fall harvest season.
Pruning shears know where to cut
Hemming cooperates not only with pear growers, but also with red currant growers. They desperately need a robot that automatically prunes berry bushes in the winter. So the researchers first built scissors for the raspberry bush and then one for apple and pear trees with more complex branch structures.
“The big challenge with pruning is that the robot has to recognize annual and biennial wood. Their color and flower buds vary quite a bit. We are investigating if the camera system can recognize this and if you can use a set of parameters to determine which branches the robot should prune.” The first trials will begin soon.
The Next Fruit 4.0 project runs from 2020 to 2024. Jochen hopes the pear, raspberry, apple, and pear pruner will be able to run efficiently by then. Meanwhile, researchers and companies are exploring the possibilities of more hands for the robot.
He concludes, “You can use such a robot for precision spraying to control disease. The more jobs you can combine, the better. And it only becomes economically viable if you can do more than just harvest and prune.”