Read that Volkswagen has its Navarra factory automated and that its robots "dance" with perfect movements is hardly surprising. If there is a sector immersed in industry 4.0, it is that of the automobile. Thinking about C-3PO picking fruit sounds more like a movie. Seeing a robot walking through the field and filling a box of apples seems like a distant future. However, in Silicon Valley do not think so: the venture capital company Google decided to bet in 2017 by Abundant Robotics and finance the development of a robot that collects apples using a kind of vacuum cleaner that sucks the fruit without suffering minimal damage.
In other types of crops, such as vine harvesters, a tractor can pass by shaking everything and separating the berries, but this procedure is not feasible with trees or other crops where the fruits ripen at different times over time. The autonomous vehicle of Abundant Robotics moves through the garden and, using image recognition technology, detects ripe apples ready to be collected and sucks them.
In Spain there is great concern about the aging of farmers and the abandonment of the rural environment. But it is a global problem: it is getting harder and harder to find workers at critical moments. In California, for example, 56% of farmers have not been able to hire all the employees they needed in 2018. News like these are repeated in other parts of the world.
56% of farmers can not hire all the employees they need
These little robots want to help out. Many are prototypes, proofs of concept that will not be commercialized for a couple of years. One of them is the Sweeper pepper collector, developed in Europe in collaboration with the University of Wageningen. Sweeper processes the images to determine if the fruit is ready for harvesting and, in that case, takes out a small blade, cuts the tail and the pepper falls into the arms of the robot. For now, the process takes 24 seconds, It is not too fast but it is not bad for a robot that can be working 24 hours a day. If tomatoes are your thing, you will be interested to know about the MetoMotion-GRoW robot. But even for smaller fruits, like strawberries, there are incredible models. This robot chooses exactly those that are ready:
The important thing about these robots is not that they move with precision or that they are delicate with the fruits to preserve their quality until they reach the consumer. The really interesting thing is that they apply technology in real time to detect if the fruit is at the optimum time of harvesting.
The technology can also be used to know if the soil needs fertilization or a phytosanitary treatment. And the resistance to phytosanitary products increases every year and it is becoming a problem. To avoid the excess of applications, the company Blue River Technology has developed a system that, using real-time image vision, analyzes the plants and only applies herbicide to those that are not being cultivated.
We live in a time in which it is not difficult to hear voices that say that robots are going to end employment. And it is true that many jobs are at risk of disappearing by automation, but in the field it is increasingly difficult to find workers who are responsible for tasks such as harvesting, harvesting or harvesting. The solution to improve productivity could come hand in hand with these robots, which would become essential workers in a sector that needs to be lent a hand.
Miguel Fuentes is a SERESCO business consultant
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