The coronavirus has once again hit horticulturists where it hurts. ‘How do I find enough staff to pick all my fruit and vegetables?’ There are hardly any people left in Western Europe who want to do this work for a reasonable wage. Finding Eastern Europeans has proven to be more difficult than ever during the outbreak of the virus. And reliable robots that can pick tomatoes, strawberries, and raspberries still don’t exist.
But the British University of Plymouth has announced that help is on its way. Fieldwork Robotics, a spin-off from this university, has been working for a few years now on robots with flexible arms that can compete with humans when it comes to harvesting fruit. The company started with just about the trickiest fruit there is – raspberries. Because, says founder Martin Stoelen: “If a robot can pick those fragile raspberries, it can pick anything.”
On the road to mass production together with Bosch
Initial tests were successful. Now Fieldwork Robotics has signed an agreement with the German technology giant Bosch to perfect the robot.
This involves fine-tuning technology and software that should make the robot arm even more flexible and, above all, much faster. Because this has always been its biggest handicap so far. A robot may be able to work 24 hours non-stop, but humans are still faster. Bosch also aims to help reduce the robot’s manufacturing costs.
Fieldwork Robotics was founded in 2016 by Dr. Martin Stoelen, who is also Professor of Robotics at the University of Plymouth and at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences. In addition to the raspberry picking robot, he is participating in a robotic project led by Agri-Tech Cornwall which focuses on picking cauliflowers. On top of that, he’s also involved with a tomato picking project in collaboration with the Chinese Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
The CEO of Fieldwork Robotics, Rui Andres, has this to say on the collaboration with Bosch: “This agreement is the result of extensive consultation between all parties and the growing interest at Bosch in horticultural technology.”
Apart from having Bosch as a partner and investor, Fieldwork Robotics is also supported with a subsidy of over half a million pounds from the British government. In addition, the Frontier IP investment company has been brought on board as an expert in realm of patents. Frontier IP holds 26.9% of the shares.
Along with Siemens, Bosch is one of Germany’s largest technology companies and boasts 400,000 employees worldwide.