Each year, millions of dollars are poured into developing berry-picking robots that can replace human harvesters in the field. But it turns out this process is very difficult to automate—requiring advanced mechanical and software technologies that enable robots to differentiate ripe from unripe fruit, and then delicately pick and place berries from vines onto conveyors.
Fortunately, there are simpler ways to automate the picking process that don’t replace human workers, but complement them. An example is the StrawBot™ by AgPro Robotics Inc., a California-based agriculture technology company that provides semi-autonomous harvest aids.
Simple Automation, Substantial Savings
StrawBot is a fully electric platform that semi-autonomously follows harvesters to collect the produce they pick, thus removing all the non-productive work of walking full and empty trays in and out of rows. StrawBot integrates a dual electric motor and drive system, as well as intelligent controls and infrared proximity sensors. Each adjustable chassis accommodates 48, 52 and 64-inch bed widths and features a lightweight, durable and maneuverable design. Available in two- and four-harvester sizes, StrawBot can carry up to 600 pounds of berries. It also includes an optional solar power upgrade that provides over 300 watts of renewable energy, extending its distance in the field.
In terms of its control system, ModuSystems, a motion control solutions provider, supplied a custom control box that acts as the brains behind the bot, as well as push-button boxes that enable operators to manually control the platform. Engineers designed a custom controller for this project based on the ModuSystems standard MMC-TC Series, a single-axis modular unit for controlling axes with external stepper or digital servo amplifiers. Because the standard controller packed more features than what was required for this application, engineers were able to cut production costs in half by going down the OEM custom route—all without having to change a single line of programming.
StrawBot provides farmers with labor cost savings of roughly 18 to 35 percent. It also enables pickers to cover 15 to 20 percent more ground. For strawberry fields that are several hundreds of thousands of acres, this increase in harvested acreage is considerable. It can also mean the difference between a profit and loss for farmers, many of whom already operate at razor-thin margins due to weather conditions, labor shortages and other factors that affect their harvests each year.
Currently, StrawBots are aiding harvesters on berry farms in California, yielding the following benefits:
- Sustainability. StrawBot is fully electric, operates with little noise and produces no exhaust. It even runs on renewable energy with an optional solar panel.
- Increased productivity. StrawBot boosts worker productivity by up to 35 percent. It also encourages healthy competition for harvesters and reduces the risk of injury.
- Less waste, more profits. StrawBot leads to better pay for harvesters, as well as reduced costs for growers. It also reduces un-harvested acreage due to inefficiencies and labor shortages.
A Delivery Platform for More Advanced AgTech
In addition to its ability to improve productivity and efficiency in hand-picked produce markets, StrawBot, as a simple automation platform, is capable of delivering more advanced AgTech into the field, including Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced software technologies. For example, engineers can easily upgrade StrawBot to include GPS navigation, wireless data collection, harvest analytics and forecasting tools.
In addition to improving annual harvests, GPS navigation, camera systems, data analysis and other automation technologies also enable new levels of traceability. For instance, farmers can keep track of things like the time and location of a batch, as well as how long it takes for the batch to get to the freezer—enabling farmers to not only harvest more produce, but more data as well.
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to StrawBot is the fact that it still allows human workers to do their job as they’ve always done it. It doesn’t change how the planters plant or the harvesters harvest. It just makes them more efficient.
To learn more about ModuSystems motion control solutions, visit www.modusystems.com.