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Norfolk Business Awards 2018

Could robots be used to replace strawberry pickers at Wilkin & Sons?

PUBLISHED: 13:33 22 August 2018

Dr Vishuu Mohan's robotic arm Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX

Dr Vishuu Mohan's robotic arm Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX

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Robotics experts at the University of Essex are working with world-famous jam makers Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree to look at ways of picking strawberries with robots.

Dr Vishuu Mohan Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEXDr Vishuu Mohan Picture: UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX

In some UK farms, though not at Tiptree, up to 20% of soft fruit are currently unpicked due to problems recruiting enough workers – a situation which could get worse after Brexit – and farms are having to look at alternative ways of harvesting their crops in the future.

The research at Essex, led by Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, is part of a major project looking at how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits, working alongside humans in a farm environment and also reducing production costs.

“The challenge is that no two berries are the same - they come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage,” explained Dr Mohan. “Also the environment keeps changing constantly - sunny, windy, rainy - in contrast to a typical industrial environment. Hence, dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today.”

Currently one billion strawberries are picked by hand at Tiptree every year, by humans who have half a second to check the strawberries for ripeness, disease and size.

Wilkin & Son’s general farm manager Andrey Ivanov explained that the robots haven’t quite mastered the challenge they’ve been set yet. “It could take years, or it could be just six months,” he said. “Robots can help in many industries for repetitive work on a production line, but with strawberries, they have to overcome changing conditions throughout the day - and they have to first be able to find the berry in the plant.”

The use of robotics in the future could help to solve what is potentially the region’s biggest farming problem post-Brexit - how to make sure crops are not left rotting unpicked in fields if willing farm workers cannot be found. “Year on year, it’s becoming more difficult to make sure we have enough staff to pick all our fruits,” admitted Mr Ivanov, who is himself from Bulgaria. “The idea of fruit going to waste is just heartbreaking and Brexit might make the probem worse, depending on the outcome.”

Mr Ivanov claims that rather than seeing the robotics technology as a threat to their own jobs, staff at Wilkin & Sons are very excited to see such a futuristic project in action. “At the end of the day, the robots would be there to help - staff would end up doing slightly different tasks.”

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