The Future of Crop Harvesting
Meet the World’s First Strawberry Picking Robot
A number of developed countries undergo a shortage of labor in the agricultural sector that threatens the sustainability and preservation of the industry. Dozens of European farms could disappear from the market unless they find a solution to affordable operating resources.
Currently, less than 5% of the available workforce in Western Society are employed in agriculture. Many decline jobs due to hard and unattractive work, as well as lower salaries, compared to other sectors. A raise in salaries could become an unbearable burden for the sector, as the cultivation industry would become too costly and thus economically unviable. Considering the fact that labor represents over 40% of the inputs, the issue gets exacerbated. Tightened rules and regulations for Labor migration don’t work in the favor of farmers either. Especially, in the times of recent Coronavirus Pandemic and in the face of stalled mobility, many farms were left vulnerable to workforce shortage or complete unavailability.
In the recent decade, several agricultural R&D companies have been focusing on reducing costs and advancing cultivation systems. Precision farming and robotic automation are some of the emerging technologies that have given promising results. There are a number of robot prototypes, especially in the area of harvesting, that could be a viable alternative to costly human labor and provide substantial savings to farmers in the long run.
Octinion and Its Rubion – Meet the Pioneers in robotized strawberry harvesting
Octinion is a Belgium-based innovative R&D company that specializes in mechatronic solutions for the agricultural industry. They have designed and crafted an autonomous strawberry-picking robot – Rubion, that harvests berries like an ideal human-picker without bruising. The innovative robot was first presented to the world in 2019 during Fruit Logistica in Berlin.
Octinion specifically focuses on tabletop systems that are quite common in Europe as well as expanding elsewhere. Rubion has a unique nature as it picks strawberries only in case if the action will not result in bruises. The robot collects at least 70% of all ripe berries and all of them damage-free with a picking speed of 5 seconds. Rubion results in higher picking and sorting quality as well as constant productivity, unrestricted timeframe, and new management tools with gathered data.
At this very stage, Rubion does not fully replace manual labor, as the remaining strawberries still need to be picked due to their unreachability to the robot. But further research and development could improve the picking ratio in the favor of the robot.
How does the Strawberry Picking Robot Work?
As mentioned earlier, Rubion possesses a fully autonomous system that requires no human intervention throughout its operation. The system comprises seven components: the electric vehicle, the localization system, the camera detection system, the custom-designed robotic arm, the gripper, the logistic handling module, and the quality monitoring software. Thanks to built-in quality monitoring, the robotic system allows for sorting, advanced crop monitoring, and precision farming. Rubion picks up around 360 kg of strawberries per day, compared to 50 kg a day for a productive human picker.
According to the CEO of the Octinion Technology Group strawberries are one of the most standardized crops that grow all-year-round, thus the investment can pay itself off faster than it would do compared to apples let’s say. In addition, strawberries are quite vulnerable to the skills of the pickers due to their softness and easily damageable properties.
How about the competitors?
There are several companies with similar concepts and technologies on the market or close to commercialization. However, the majority of them are not suited for tabletop cultivation despite the growing application of the latter. The earliest prototypes were designed in Japan that were fitted in specially adapted greenhouses. Nevertheless, these options did not prove to be economically viable in other markets such as Europe due to high investment costs for redesigning greenhouses.
US competitors Harvest-Croo and AgroBot have also created robots for open-field cultivation. Nonetheless, the machines are quite large and costly. The Dogtooth system from the University of Cambridge is also an autonomous machine for table-top cultivation. However, the machine cuts the strawberry stem instead of removing it. Searching for the stem is quite a time-taking process and because of the small wound left after cutting, diseases can enter the plant much easier as well.
What does the future of Harvesting look like?
From today’s perspective, employing robots in future harvesting looks more than just real. Farmers could potentially utilize a number of benefits that are associated with automated harvesting and fill workforce gaps that arise from time to time in fieldwork operations. Nevertheless, it’s fair to acknowledge that there are further developments needed in the areas of cost reduction as well as improving the robotic applications for other crop types.
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