Peppers are a pretty big deal, mostly because they're delicious. Globally, over 26 million metric tonnes of peppers are produced every year, with Europe's crops alone amounting to $400 million. However, although picking the fruits is a simple job for a human, it remains highly labor-intensive. Now, researchers have invented a robot which can do all the hard work for us.
The robot pepper picker runs on a rail system across the plants and features a snake-like arm and pincers which it users to harvest and store the peppers. Now, for you or me, this would be a simple task, but for robots, it's an entirely different ballgame. The robot has to navigate the garden or greenhouse, identify the pepper, cut it and put it somewhere safely -- easy for man, difficult for an artificial intelligence.
‘A human is very intelligent, and it is very difficult to replace a human being by a robot,’ explained Dr Jan Bontsema, from Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture in the Netherlands. ‘If you look at the crop, you’ll see it’s a jungle – so many leaves, and here and there are fruits. And that is the problem,’ said Dr Bontsema.
Identifying the fruits (and most importantly, only the ripe fruits) is extremely challenging. Developing this type of robots for agriculture has raised great interest in recent years, but because it's so difficult, it left most engineers stumped. This is why this project is so significant -- because it represents a breakthrough. It's not particularly elegant or efficient, but it works and it can get way better.
The robot is controlled by a central processing unit which monitors the position, orientation, speed, and status and directs them in real-time. The development of global positioning system, remote sensing, and proximity sensors has made this development possible. So far, three models have been developed a fire-breathing weeding robot directed by keen-sighted drones, a robot for spraying chemicals on rows of crops, and one for spraying trees.
Similar algorithms and technology could also be applied in other fields of agriculture, for harvesting other vegetables or fruits. Bontsema says that a harvesting robot fleet is only a couple of years away from being available to the public. Dr Angela Ribeiro at the Spanish National Research Council hopes that these robots will significantly reduce our reliance on pesticides and improve food security.
‘Most of the technology developed within the RHEA project could be ready in a few years,’ Dr Ribeiro said. ‘Although the market penetration may take longer, mainly due to the technical skills that farmers need.’