This follows progress in recent trials of the futuristic harvester, seen as a key milestone, with Fieldwork’s industry partner Hall Hunter Partnership, the soft fruit grower in west Sussex that supplies Waitrose, M&S and Tesco. Raspberries are not the only fruit however as tests with tomatoes with a team in China have also been carried out and cauliflowers are in the wings with plans to collect them in Cornwall. This is makes Fieldwork one of just a handful of multi-crop platform innovators.
The bot’s plucking powers, not limited by growing seasons, can bring in 25,000 raspberries for a 20-hour stint daily stint, compared to human labour’s 15,000 for eight hours. The final version is designed to have four, flexible multi-armed grippers that can grasp simultaneously, guided by cameras and sensors.
Raspberries are deposited in trays for sorting according to ripeness, then into punnets before despatch to the supermarkets.
The camera system will also collect data to feed back about the bushes’ condition providing chances to improve quality and yield.
Fieldwork, a spin out from Plymouth University, was founded by robotics lecturer and company director Dr Martin Stoelen.
The £672,000 project is supported by a £547,000 Innovate UK grant and Frontier IP, a specialist in commercialising university intellectual property, which holds a 27.5 percent stake in the business.
Raspberries have been the focus as they pose the biggest difficulties for automated gathering due to their fragility and the random way the berries grow among complex foliage.
“Following success with raspberries, our robots can be adapted for other soft fruits and vegetables,” explains Fieldwork’s interim chief executive Rui Andres.
It is “all about no surprises for the robots” too, says Dr Stoelen. “Different light conditions, branches, pests, they have been the biggest challenges. Our cameras and sensors have to coordinate movement so the robot operates consistently and safely.
“We have also had to ensure the arms are robust enough to reach inside a bush, but with a motion that is gentle and slightly stiffens on contact like a human arm.”
He points to a “more receptive market recently” driven by the coming together of varying factors.
Uppermost are the global concerns and immediate UK ones about labour shortages in the horticulture and agriculture industries that have even led to produce rotting unpicked.
Robots’ capacities increase productivity at a time when the healthy eating trend has also brought soft fruits and different varieties of berries to the fore.
Lower costs and advances in technology in the shape of cheaper sensors, increased computational power and more easily produced design versions have also speeded up development making innovations such as Fieldwork’s now viable in ways unthinkable a few years ago.
As is usually the case with automation and the introduction of artificial intelligence the arrival of the robot could well mean the loss of lower skilled jobs on the ground, although other skilled technical ones will be needed. Fieldwork plans to operate a harvesting service contract business model already found in the industry, so according to Andres “costs will be critical”.