Full berry into the future – with our new harvesting robot
In the beginning there is the strawberry
The list of benefits that robotics opens to farmers is long. Their farms can operate more efficiently, flexibly, and predictably, thereby increasing their productivity. The harvesting robot currently specializes in picking strawberries, but the system can be scaled and adapted to other target crops, such as tomatoes or peppers.
Patented scissors and fan grippers
Strawberries are “sensitive little fruits”. Picking them requires a lot of dexterity to avoid damaging the berries and to place them in the basket without bruising them. The robot’s patented scissor and fan grippers therefore handle the strawberries with velvet gloves, cut the fruit off at the stem, grip it at the same time to prevent it from falling off, and carefully deposit it in the palletizer. In addition, the tools are splash-proof and can cope with a wide range of humidity levels.
The use of computer vision technology, i.e., the interaction of camera, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, significantly increases the detection rate of the target fruits. For this, thousands of images of diverse fruits at different times of the day and night were used to optimize the algorithm, precisely determine the position of each strawberry, and determine the ripeness of the fruit.
Detects fruit even in the second row
What happens when ripe strawberries are covered by still green fruits? No problem for our harvesting robot. The AI precisely locates both the green and red fruits so that the scissors can safely navigate around the berries that are not yet ripe and unerringly harvest strawberries in the second row.
Up to 20 hours of picking without a break
Our robot picks strawberries – day and night. The robot’s integrated night lighting allows harvesting to continue after sunset, continuously, with the same quality every time. The replaceable battery integrated in the drawer system also ensures that the robot does not run out of power, long charging breaks are not required.
Harvesting without specific infrastructure
The robot system travels independently on a drive unit. The harvesting robot is used in long planting aisles, so-called “Stellagen”, in which planting boxes are mounted on supports at a height of about one meter. No further infrastructure, for example in the form of rails, is required so that the robot can start harvesting.
Intensive endurance tests
The robot is already undergoing endurance tests at our project partner’s premises and on test rigs specially developed and built for the purpose. During these tests, over 3.5 million cuts and a working time of 2,500 hours are safely mastered. Accordingly, both the quantity and the quality and robustness of hardware and software functional safety can be guaranteed in the work of our robot harvesting assistant.
Proven technologies from the automotive environment
Our engineering teams are used to putting complete systems on the road that are approved by the legislator and that people trust to drive in, for many tens of thousands of kilometers and over many years. We apply the same quality standards to the functional safety of the harvesting robot. The product incorporates many years of methodological expertise in the fields of autonomous processes, automation, object recognition, control technology, artificial intelligence, and production-optimized design.
Our mission strengthening agriculture and protect the climate
As a Tech Solution Provider, we develop state-of-the-art engineering solutions and make them available where they are needed. In the field of Advanced AI-Robotics, IAV has completed a technology transfer. Proven technologies from the automotive sector moving from the road to the field.
This makes our harvesting robot an important building block on the road to Agriculture 4.0 and can help farmers maintain Germany’s competitiveness as a business location. This is because the targeted use of robot technology increases the degree of digitalization, networking, and automation on farms, thereby guaranteeing safety, ergonomics, and adaptability in work processes.
Adaptability is in high demand, because farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to find enough harvest workers. The harvesting robot solves this problem and enables farmers to offer their products at competitive prices. This not only strengthens the domestic business location, but also protects the environment, as fewer goods must be imported at great expense.
“Germany, with its deep technical understanding as well as its development and manufacturing depth, is made for a high technology like advanced AI robotics.”
(Enrico Neumann, Produktmanager)
The maturation of the robot – How it all began
IAV has been working on the harvesting robot since 2020. The video shows the first prototype for the robot’s cutting arm during a demonstration at the Gifhorn site, which was also attended by Lower Saxony’s Minister President Stephan Weil.
A lot has happened since then. In just two years, the company has succeeded in fundamentally refining the robot arm, optimizing computer vision, and developing the robot into an autonomous driving and picking system and testing it on real strawberry fields in Germany.
Testing at project partners and in the development center
The great progress made in developing the harvesting robot over the past two years was only possible thanks to strong partners. In Karl’s Erdbeerhof, IAV has a partner at its side who creates the necessary foundations and boundary conditions to enable the harvesting robot to work and learn.
During the development phase, our engineering team benefited from the wealth of experience of the employees at Karl’s, learning about the peculiarities of strawberries and their different varieties and processing options. Because only the combination of strawberry know-how and engineering expertise can result in a harvesting robot that meets the highest quality demands of farmers and strawberry consumers.
What’s more, Karl’s is driving its own digitization and sustainability initiatives from the farmer’s perspective on its own farm and is actively involved in the development of the harvesting robot. As our so-called customer “0”, Karl’s learns along the way and is also prepared to experience initial failures. In addition, the company brings all available innovations to the project, for example with the cultivation method of covered and air-conditioned Stellagen, as well as various fruit varieties and cultivation techniques.
With Uli Osterloh, IAV is getting its own perspective from a second heavyweight in the industry and thus valuable input in the form of ideas and individual boundary conditions, which can vary from farm to farm to a greater or lesser extent.
In addition, a dedicated Stellage has been set up at IAV’s development center in Gifhorn so that prototype development can be driven forward not only at our partners’ premises but also right next door to our own workshops.
Logistical flexibility with mobile conveyor belt
Depending on the length of the rows on the farm and the variety of strawberries cultivated, different quantities of fruit are harvested per planting row. In order for the harvesting robot to be able to act as autonomously as possible, the intermediate storage of the fruit must also be taken into consideration. A separate palletising system provides the necessary flexibility.
In the current construction stage of the trailer, up to twelve stacks, i.e. standardised pallets in which the sales baskets are placed, can be transported on stacked loading levels. The exchange of empty and full stairs between the robot and the trailer is done by adjusting the angle of inclination of the roller conveyors via the lifting columns. The trailer system significantly increases the storage capacity of the robot, while reducing the manual unloading effort of the staff and thus speeding up the harvesting process overall.
Since the robot and the trailer can function independently of each other, the use of automated trailers for several robots is also conceivable in the future.
AgEng Landtechnik Berlin November 2022
After the demanding work in the field this strawberry season, the well-deserved show run for our harvesting robot followed at the AgEng Landtechnik in Berlin.
It was a premiere for the robot – as it was presented to the public for the first time. Our team on site took the opportunity to talk to numerous interested participants from science and industry.