A vegetable-picking robot that uses machine learning to identify and harvest a commonplace, but challenging, agricultural crop has been developed by engineers.
The ‘Vegebot’, developed by a team at the University of Cambridge, was initially trained to recognise and harvest iceberg lettuce in a lab setting. It has now been successfully tested in a variety of field conditions in cooperation with G’s Growers, a local fruit and vegetable co-operative, reports Science Daily.
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Although it is the most common type of lettuce grown in the UK, iceberg is easily damaged and grows relatively flat to the ground, presenting a challenge for robotic harvesters.
“Every field is different, every lettuce is different,” said co-author Simon Birrell from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “But if we can make a robotic harvester work with iceberg lettuce, we could also make it work with many other crops.”
The Vegebot first identifies the ‘target’ crop within its field of vision, then determines whether a particular lettuce is healthy and ready to be harvested, and finally cuts the lettuce from the rest of the plant without crushing it so that it is ‘supermarket ready’.
The Vegebot has 2 main components: a computer vision system and a cutting system. The overhead camera on the Vegebot takes an image of the lettuce field and first identifies all the lettuces in the image, and then for each lettuce, classifies whether it should be harvested or not. A lettuce might be rejected because it’s not yet mature, or it might have a disease that could spread to other lettuces in the harvest.
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The researchers developed and trained a machine learning algorithm on example images of lettuces. Once the Vegebot could recognise healthy lettuces in the lab, it was then trained in the field, in a variety of weather conditions, on thousands of real lettuces.
A second camera on the Vegebot is positioned near the cutting blade, and helps ensure a smooth cut. The researchers were also able to adjust the pressure in the robot’s gripping arm so that it held the lettuce firmly enough not to drop it, but not so firm as to crush it. The force of the grip can be adjusted for other crops.
In future, robotic harvesters could help address problems with labour shortages in agriculture, and could also help reduce food waste. At the moment, each field is typically harvested once, and any unripe vegetables or fruits are discarded. However, a robotic harvester could be trained to pick only ripe vegetables, and since it could harvest around the clock, it could perform multiple passes on the same field, returning at a later date to harvest the vegetables that were unripe during previous passes.
“We‘re also collecting lots of data about lettuce, which could be used to improve efficiency, such as which fields have the highest yields,” said Hughes. “We‘ve still got to speed our Vegebot up to the point where it could compete with a human, but we think robots have lots of potential in agri-tech.”