AI Controlled Harvesters: IAV Drives Farming 4.0 Forward

Getting the harvest quickly and safely at the right time to secure the work of an entire year. Farmers face this challenge when preparing for harvest time and it is not always possible to find enough helpers for their fields in time. Although some agricultural products can be harvested by machine over large areas, a sure instinct is required for many crops. Only for products without crop damage do farmers achieve good prices. To support them, IAV is developing a robotic arm that provides targeted and efficient support.

Ernteroboter 16_9

24/7: Robotic arm is fast, precise – and smart

Each arm functions as an autonomous unit and has control technology, cutting tools and its own camera to recognize and harvest the crop. During operation, the harvesting robot targets the stem of the crop, grips it and then cuts it off in one go. This enables harvesting free of damage and bruises.

To guarantee safety for people in the field, several of these robotic arms are mounted on the long sides of a vehicle facing inwards. They receive their electricity from the vehicle’s on-board power supply. They harvest the fruit and then place it on a conveyor belt in the middle.

“Alongside precision, speed is the most important factor in our robotic arms”, says Dr. Jürgen Pannek, Senior Technical Consultant for Robotics at IAV. “After all, there is usually only a very short time window available for harvesting crops.”

Perfect symbiosis of bionics and artificial intelligence

In order for the harvesting robot to recognize the fruits as such, they must first be photographed in detail. With the help of these pictures, the robot is first taught to recognize not only the fruit, but also its stem and degree of ripeness. Using standard artificial intelligence (AI) methods, a hit rate of 20 percent can be achieved with just eight images.

Our goal, however, was to achieve a hit rate of over 95 percent. To achieve this, several hundred images are needed under real conditions, i.e. in the field and in all weathers.

Dr. Jürgen Pannek — Senior Technical Consultant for Robotics

The practical use of the AI during actual harvesting is less complex and is implemented with comparatively simple computer hardware. In addition, the procedure is independent of whether the crop is strawberries, cucumbers or peppers.

And the harvesting robot is also a generalist in lightweight construction in terms of its design concept: Thanks to its modular concept for the gripper and kinematics, it can be converted to different fruits in just a few steps.

In developing the harvesting robot, IAV engineers benefit from their expertise in autonomous systems, mechatronics and operability.

Future prospects for vertical farming

In the future, the robotic arm will be used not only in the field, but also at lofty heights. In vertical farming, i.e. the cultivation of different crops on several levels, a track system allows the harvesting robots to move in the right direction. In addition, in the future the arms could not only assist in harvesting but also in looking after the crops by detecting and removing weeds, pinching out or detecting pests.

No matter whether vertical or horizontal: Our robotic arm is flexible and supports the farmer with its precision and speed – even in time-critical situations

Dr. Jürgen Pannek — Senior Technical Consultant for Robotics

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