29th September 2018
Pepper harvesting robot could enter commercial use within five years
The first sweet pepper harvesting robot in the world has been demonstrated at a greenhouse in Belgium. It could enter mainstream commercial use within four or five years.
A pepper harvesting robot was introduced this month at the Research Station for Vegetable Production at St. Katelijne Waver in Belgium. Developed by a consortium including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), SWEEPER is designed to operate in a single stem row cropping system, with non-clustered fruits and little leaf occlusion. Preliminary test results show that the robot currently harvests ripe fruit in an average time of 24 seconds.
The BGU team spearheaded efforts to improve the robot's ability to detect ripe produce using computer vision, and has played a role in defining the specifications of the robot's hardware and software interfaces, focusing on supervisory control activities.
"The Sweeper picks methodically and accurately," says Polina Kurtser, a Ph.D. candidate in the BGU Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. Kurtser believes robotic harvesting will revolutionise the economics of agriculture and dramatically reduce food waste: "When it is fully developed, it will enable harvesting 24/7, drastically reduce spoilage, cut labour costs and shield farmers from market fluctuations," she says.
To teach SWEEPER to identify and harvest peppers gently, without damaging them or the plant they grew on, requires AI and machine learning. Unlike a human worker who can discern the colourful fruit among the green foliage quite easily, even in somewhat dim lighting, robots have a much more difficult time doing so. Kurtser, who is studying computer vision and robotics, says the team had to use thousands of pictures of peppers to teach the robot to identify the vegetables.
Additional research is needed to increase the robot's work speed to reach a higher success rate, which is currently 62%. The Sweeper consortium expects that based on its current progress, a commercial sweet pepper harvesting robot will be available within four to five years, and that the technology could be adapted for other crops.
In 2017, Europe accounted for more than half the world's pepper supply (53.2%) with exports valued at $2.7 billion. North America is the second largest producer of sweet (bell) and chili peppers in the world, with a 31% market share.
SWEEPER is a partnership between BGU, Wageningen University & Research, and pepper grower De Tuindershoek BV, in the Netherlands, Umea University in Sweden, and the Research Station for Vegetable Cultivation and Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics in Belgium. The project has received funding from the EU's Horizon 2020 program.
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