The cauliflower-picking robot heading for commercial manufacture

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Vegetable pickers are in short supply, some of the larger English growers have been chartering planes to fly labour in from Eastern Europe. It’s a challenge mirrored across the world’s developed countries. To address this shortage a number of firms have developed crop specific robotic pickers. One such company, Fieldwork Robotics, a spin off company from the UK’s University of Plymouth, has been addressing cauliflower picking.

Working with Bonduelle Group through until 2023, Fieldwork Robotics will create a prototype cauliflower picking robot that will be ready for commercial manufacture. Fieldwork will initially work on the detection and soft robotics technology with a view to an early-stage prototype during 2022. Bonduelle, which operates in more than 100 countries and generates annual revenues of approximately €2.8 billion a year, will provide access to fields, vegetable know-how and harvesting conditions.

Cauliflowers can bruise easily, the robot has to carefully harvest the produce whilst also assessing its readiness through detailed camera analysis. 

Cauliflowers can bruise easily, the robot has to carefully harvest the produce whilst also assessing its readiness through detailed camera analysis.

At the start of 2020 Fieldwork successfully raised £298,000 to accelerate development of their robotic harvesting technology. It has also been supported by a £547,250 Innovate UK grant as part of a £671,484 project to develop a multi-armed robot prototype. Other partners in the project include the University and the National Physical Laboratory. Significant progress has also already been made on the cauliflower technology thanks to earlier work as part of Agri-Tech Cornwall, an initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

This isn’t Fieldwork’s first foray into commercial robot development of course. Fieldwork’s patented agricultural robot technology has also already made strong progress with a raspberry harvesting robot in collaboration with Hall Hunter Partnership, one of the UK’s biggest soft fruit producers. The company is working with Bosch to optimise the software and design of the robot arms.

Rui Andres, Fieldwork Robotics Chief Executive Officer, said “We have already enjoyed significant progress through our collaboration with Hall Hunter Partnership on the raspberry-harvesting version of the technology. The agreement with Bonduelle to collaborate on developing a second iteration of Fieldwork’s agricultural robots is a strong validation of the technology. We are very much looking forward to working with them to develop an effective system to harvest cauliflowers.”

Claudine Lambert, Group Agronomy Director, Bonduelle Prospective & Development, said “Bonduelle has a strong commitment to sustainable and diversified agriculture in all of the territories where we operate globally. New technologies can play an important part in meeting that commitment, so we are delighted to be collaborating with Fieldwork Robotics and excited by the potential of its agricultural robots.”

Fieldworks Robotics co-founder Dr Martin Stoelen, Lecturer in Robotics at the University of Plymouth and Associate Professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Science, has also worked on tomato harvesting technology. No surprise that Fieldwork is also developing proof-of-concept robots for tomato growers following interest from leading multinational agribusinesses.

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About Author

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Matt has worked in digital publishing for twenty years, holding management positions at Nature (nature.com) and William Reed Business Media (foodmanufacture.co.uk). He has also worked with Wiley Interscience, The IET, Centaur Publishing and BBC Worldwide. Since 2010 Matt has been a digital consultant working with B2B media companies in the agricultural, automotive, aviation, robotics and technology sectors. As Chairman of his local allotment association Matt grows his own food whilst chasing the dream of a one tonne giant pumpkin. He is a member of the British Garden Media Guild and was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild Awards 'blog of the year' category in 2018 and 2019.

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