In modern greenhouses there is a high demand to automate labour. The availability of a skilled workforce that accepts repetitive tasks in the harsh climate conditions of a greenhouse is decreasing rapidly. The current state of the art in automated harvesting of fruits and vegetables has remained remarkably stationary in the past decades. In the EU-FP7-project CROPS (www.crops-robots.eu) extensive research has been performed on agricultural robotics. One of the applications was a sweet pepper harvesting robot. SWEEPER will use the technology developed in CROPS to introduce, test and validate a robotic harvesting solution for sweet pepper under real-world conditions.
The project involves 6 partners from 4 different countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Israel). The consortium consist out of fundamental and applied research organisations, a system integrator and a modern grower of sweet pepper. In the consortium a wide-range of disciplines are available, including: horticulture, horticultural engineering, machine vision, sensing, robotics, control, intelligent systems, software architecture, system integration and greenhouse crop management.
The SWEEPER robot is the first sweet pepper harvesting robot in the world demonstrated in a commercial greenhouse. It is designed to operate in a single stem row cropping system, with a crop having non-clustered fruits and little leaf occlusion. Tests were performed in a commercial greenhouse having a 2-row V-type cropping system. Preliminary test results showed that by using a commercial available crop modified to mimic the required conditions, the robot harvests ripe fruits in 24 seconds with a success rate of 62%. Based upon these results, the Sweeper consortium expects that a commercial sweet pepper harvesting robot will be available within 4-5 years. Further research is needed to make the robot work even faster and reach a higher harvest success rate. Next, a commercial viable single-stem row cropping must be developed and the breeding companies must develop crop cultivars that are more suitable for robotic harvesting. The obtained results can also be used for robotic harvesting of other crops.
It turns out that science fiction writer Otfrid von Hanstein published an exact description of the SWEEPER robot in his 1935 story The Hidden Colony, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories:
...machines, little machines, that went from plant to plant, apparently on caterpillar tracks, cutting off the ripe fruit. We could not make out what they did with them after plucking.
(Read more about the fruit-picking robot)
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