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Smart robot could transform produce picking farms


A new smart robot could transform the way farmers pick tomatoes.

Researchers at the University of Guelph have developed a grasping system which, when combined with artificial intelligence, can pick up produce.

“It can actually see the tomatoes on the vine,” research assistant Cole Tarry said.

The yellow-armed robot then secures the tomato, pulls it from the vine and places it in a bin.

A simple motion, but one that isn’t straightforward.

Researchers say greenhouses are considered “hostile” environments.

“The objects that you are dealing with are fragile,” explained Medhat Moussa, a professor at U of G’s school of engineering. “These plants are actually hanging literally by a thread.”

With little room for error, why are researchers giving robots this delicate task when humans are better suited to pick tomatoes?

Medhat Moussa, a professor at U of G’s school of engineering (left), and research assistant Cole Tarry (right). (Spencer Turcotte/CTV Kitchener)

“We have a labour shortage when it comes to working in agriculture,” Moussa said. “[At] the same time, the agriculture industry is facing an aging problem.”

According to a report from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council, one-third of agricultural workforce are expected to retire by 2030, meaning more than 100,000 jobs could go unfilled.

Robots, like the one being developed at the University of Guelph, could be the solution.

“Of course, the robots can work longer hours,” Moussa said.

The machine is being tested at Singh Greenhouses in Millgrove, Ont. The project was first inspired by growers in Leamington, Ont. who urged the development of automated solutions. Researchers are currently working to improve the technology.

“The challenge is to do all of this to match the human cycle,” Moussa explained. “Human cycles are six seconds per harvest. We have a system that is successful in terms of picking up these beefsteak tomatoes, but [we’re at] 18 seconds. So the next stage is to bring it all the way lower, to say, eight seconds.”

The robot will also analyze the health of every plant and feed that information back into a database that will attempt to optimize the farming operation.

Researchers have also set new goals for the technology.

They hope the robot will one day be able to also pick up peppers and strawberries.

The technology has been in development at U of G for more than a decade. Top Stories

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