The launch of a new robot, complete with flexible fingers, has been welcomed by crop researchers and farmers in Scotland as an exciting development with fruit-picking potential – although still not likely to be as good as the human touch.
Called Hank, the new super-sensitive robot has been developed by global innovation specialists Cambridge Consultants, who say their invention is equipped to hold and grip delicate objects using just the right amount of pressure.
“Hank could have valuable applications in agriculture, where the ability to pick small, irregular and delicate items has been one of the industry’s ‘grand challenges’,” they said.
They added that while other robots tend to require complex grasping algorithms, costly sensing devices and vision sensors, Hank’s soft robotic fingers are controlled by airflows that can flex the finger and apply force as required.
Definitely interested in the new robot is Professor Derek Stewart, agri-food sector lead at the James Hutton Institute.
“This is an exciting development that has implications across the full food and drink supply chains and particularly for impact-sensitive produce such as strawberries and raspberries,” he told The Courier.
He went on to explain that the development of such new picking technologies will lead to breeding and production changes which are “better adapted to Hank and his relatives”.
NFU Scotland policy manager Peter Loggie also saw merit in Hank’s arrival, describing it as an “interesting development” before pointing out there is a lot more to picking fruit than just touch.
“Trained pickers need to very quickly assess which berries are ready before picking them and often need to move foliage to assess that,” he said.
“A robot would also need to be able to move and visually analyse the plants and berries as human pickers do.
“Traditionally, computer technology has been very poor at pattern recognition, compared with humans, but artificial intelligence is improving all the time.”
Carnoustie grower James Porter, chairman of NFU Scotland’s horticulture committee added: “The reality of balancing the expensive camera technology needed to match up with picking hands and the cost of development for such a machine means we are unlikely to see it being commercially available any time soon.
“However, if we can put people on the moon, I am sure we could ultimately develop a strawberry harvester, but I think the cost would make it unviable.”
Hank’s developers remain entirely upbeat, however, pointing out that his fingers are flexible, food-safe and cleanable and that, as a low-cost consumable, they can simply be replaced if they ever become damaged or worn.