Monster Machines: Robots With Digital Eyes Could Pick Your Next Peck Of Peppers

The days of hand-picked fruits and vegetables — at least those picked by human hands — are quickly coming to a close as robotic farming technology continues its rapid advancement. A team of roboticists from the EU, for example, have just debuted an automated fruit and vegetable harvester that can spot ripe produce just by looking at it.

The research team is actually part of a well-funded study by the European Union dubbed (rather self-referentially) Clever Robots for Crops or CROPS. And while the project is still in its prototyping stages, its produce plucking prowess is impressive. The system leverages multispectral imaging in its task — fluorescence imaging to check for ripeness, LIDAR for sensing foliage, and even thermal for spotting humans within its work area.

As the CROPS project website explains, the research team set out with very ambitious design goals:

CROPS will develop scientific know-how for a highly configurable, modular and clever carrier platform that includes modular parallel manipulators and intelligent tools (sensors, algorithms, sprayers, grippers) that can be easily installed onto the carrier and are capable of adapting to new tasks and conditions. Several technological demonstrators will be developed for high value crops like greenhouse vegetables, fruits in orchards, and grapes for premium wines.

The CROPS robotic platform will be capable of site-specific spraying (targets spray only towards foliage and selective targets) and selective harvesting of fruit (detects the fruit, determines its ripeness, moves towards the fruit, grasps it and softly detaches it). Another objective of CROPS is to develop techniques for reliable detection and classification of obstacles and other objects to enable successful autonomous navigation and operation in plantations and forests. The agricultural and forestry applications share many research areas, primarily regarding sensing and learning capabilities.

The system has a long way to go until its ready to start takin’ our jerbs. As you can see from the video below, even with a gnashing claptrap harvesting head the robot takes forever in lining up its shot. Plus the system hasn’t quite figured out how to handle three dimensional spaces — say the interior branches of an apple tree — so apples and grapes must instead be grown as part of a “fruit wall” wherein they are pruned into a nearly flat bonai-esque shrubs.

So while these machines aren’t quite ready for field trials just yet, they represent an important part of an exciting time in agriculture. As we begin to seriously work towards exoplanet exploration — especially any missions involving hungry, hungry humans — feeding out astronauts more than reconstituted Matrix gruel is essential.

But the dissonant technologies needed to make that happen are all simultaneously emerging. Take Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM, pack it full of Shigeharu Shimamura’s hydroponic LED farms, and let these robo-tenders loose raising the crops. With a high enough efficiency they could be launched into a ring circling the planet — grown by robots, autonomously delivered from geosynchronous orbit by Dragon space capsules, only occasionally requiring a topping off of water and oxygen. And for extra-terrestrial exploration, the same hypothetical conglomeration could be crammed into the next rocket to Mars as a starter farm for the first colonists. [CROPS via IEEE]