Picking strawberries is hard work. It takes time, and the summer days can make picking hot and tiring. And because the plants are low to the ground, there is a lot of bending over and crouching.
But a new machine is aiming to take the pain out of picking. Meet the Harvest CROO Robotics autonomous strawberry picker.
This thing can pick an entire strawberry plant in eight seconds. It is also able to decide what berries are ripe and what ones should be left longer to ripen, as well as the overall health of the plant. It can even provide farmers with data about their entire strawberry field, plant by plant, row by row.
Octopus times two
One of the keys to this machine's success is a collection of 16 arms. In fact, each arm is actually its own robot, equipped with a camera, sensors, and 'hands' for both brushing leaves aside and picking the actual berries.
These arms are able to pick the berries quickly and delicately. They also work together, sharing information to be able to finish the job efficiently. Essentially, the 16 arms hover over a plant, analyze its berries in milliseconds, spin and whirl into position, and finally descend and pick. Then it's on to the next plant.
The entire apparatus moves slowly down the strawberry rows on an autonomous (self-driving) vehicle. The 'car' has 360° LIDAR—a type of laser-powered radar that lets it see completely around itself. This way, it can pick out any obstacles, including the end of the row, objects accidentally left in its path, and, especially, people!
The vehicle can also easily pick berries at night! This is, apparently, an ideal time to pick strawberries, as they are less likely to bruise in the cool night air than during the baking summer heat.
Dark side to robots?
It all sounds pretty amazing. A device that can pick day and night, treat the berries with care, sort them, and provide a report on the health of the crops? Impressive.
But what about the people who were working those jobs? For example, the strawberry industry in California alone employs around 55,000 people per year. If a robot picker like the Harvest CROO catches on, it could cut that number by half or more. That's a lot of lost jobs.
However, it is also a type of work that less and less young people are turning to. Many farms have reported labour shortages, meaning less people are asking to be hired. Again, picking is really, really hard work.
Perhaps an ideal future for farms is that machines like the Harvest CROO are able to handle the most repetitive, challenging tasks on the farms, leaving other jobs for people to handle. This could include stuff like running the day-to-day of the farm, getting product from the farms to market, and more.
Either way, there's no question that the future of farming is changing!
Watch a video of this robot strawberry picker doing its thing below.