Who doesn’t love strawberries? Drinks come in strawberry flavor, we devour shortcakes topped with them, cover them in chocolate, the list goes on. What doesn’t go on, however, are the people who pick those small, bright red fruits out in the fields. Distributors are having a hard time finding people to do the job. And that’s where technology steps in to save the day. Two companies, Octinion and Dogtooth, are developing robots that can gather strawberries just as efficiently as most humans.
Both operate on the same basic principle – they locate the berries using 3D vision, grasp the fruit very gently between cushioned “fingers,” and harvest it from the tree. Careful attention is paid to ensure the fruits are not damaged during or after the picking. The difference between the robots involves what they do with the calyx – the green leaves on top.
Octinion’s robot plucks the strawberries by twisting them 90 degrees, leaving each berry without any of the stem attached. This is the method most consumers in Europe prefer, as keeping the stalks attached risks them bruising other strawberries in the punnet. Dogtooth takes the opposite approach, snipping the berry off by the stem, leaving just a little bit of it intact. Doing so helps extend the fruit’s shelf life, so both methods have benefits and trade-offs.
Two more competitors are soon to arrive on the scene as well, and they’re huge. The Argobot and the Croo span several rows in girth and sport a number of arms on the underside to reach down and harvest the strawberries (the Argo snips the stem while the Croo plucks) as it trucks along. They’ll also be ready to ship out sooner than their smaller counterparts.
This move to machine-based picking is receiving a lot of support from growers and sellers. While they offer handsome pay to human pickers, there just aren’t enough willing bodies for one reason or another, depending on the region. So it’s unlikely these robots will put humans out of work, and if they truly do end up being as good at the job as a person, it’s a win-win for strawberry lovers everywhere.