For years researchers have developed robots that can do any number of rugged things. For instance, some robots jump, others run. Yet others pursue a life of carnage and battle fellow robots to death.

Besides creating bots who can do those frankly awesome things, some researchers are aiming to design and build robots with a sweeter, gentler touch.

Specifically, U.K. scientists constructed a robot that possesses such a light grip that it can pick a succulent, ripe berry and not crush it into a juicy pulp. Notably, the innovative machine provides a glimpse into the future of farming for Europe and beyond.

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Analyzing Berries for Ripeness

Developed by Fieldwork Robotics and Hall Hunter, one of the U.K.’s leading berry growers, the current version of the robot picker costs around £700,000 to produce.

The present price, however, doesn’t reflect the long-term goal, which is to launch a fleet of robots that pick 25,000 raspberries a day. In comparison to its human counterparts, in an eight-hour shift, a person can pick upwards of 15,000.

As designed, the robotic picker is slow. So slow that it takes about a minute to pick one berry. Fieldwork hopes to have a model with four simultaneous pickers in production by 2020. With this update, the time it takes to pick one berry should decrease.

The robot uses sensors and 3D cameras along with adaptive artificial intelligence (AI) to determine if a berry is ripe. When working at full capacity, the machine is capable of analyzing and picking berries every 10 seconds. Once selected, the bot places the berries in a tray where they are sorted and sent to grocery stores.

Dr. Martin Stoelen, a professor at Plymouth University, conceived the idea for the robotic fruit picker. Stoelen drew inspiration from his family’s farm in Norway.

Moreover, his decision to start with picking berries is not a random one. By beginning with the softest strains of produce, Fieldwork hopes to adjust the technology to handle different fruits and vegetables down the road. If a robot can pick a berry, it can likely pick a lemon.

20 Hours a Day, Seven Days a Week

While the innovative machine can pick for up to 20 hours a day, working in a field environment presents challenges. For example, Fieldwork hasn’t yet figured out a way for the robot’s sensors to adapt to changes in daytime lighting, something that isn’t a problem with human workers.

Human field workers in the U.K., though, struggle with different concerns.

Since the country’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, many pickers from Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria have opted not to travel for work in the U.K. Furthermore, with the drop in the value of the pound, many workers have experienced pay decreases. Overall, these factors have caused a severe shortage of fruit pickers on British farms, which has led to a loss in crops across the board.

Along with these issues, the demand for berries hasn’t dropped. As a result, many British farms have many unfilled fruit picking jobs on farms. Overall, the picking robot could be a solution, replacing low-paid unskilled labor while creating new roles in providing required maintenance for the fleet of robots. 

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