Throughout history, the onset of summer has often marked the time of harvest. The harvest, of course, has evolved considerably. Unlike ancient times when the mobilization of the entire community was required to fully harvest the grain, today there are sophisticated machines run by a few individual operators that navigate fields quickly and efficiently process many acres at a time.
However, in the case of fruit, today there is still a lot of manual labor throughout the harvesting process, but workers are in shortage. Scarcity of agricultural labor and resources is reported in many countries around the world, including the United States, Australiathe UK, Vietnam and Brazil. Unharvested produce results in loss of food quality and huge economic losses, a fact that will become more evident and problematic as the world’s population continues to increase.
In a new Israeli study, researchers from the Technion has developed a ground-based mobile robot that could significantly advance farming and fruit harvesting. The robot, whose development was led by Associate Professor Amir Degani of the Technion’s Department of Environmental, Water and Agricultural Engineering, will have the ability to use one or more small drones to perform the operations required in orchards much more accurately and cheaper than the methods used by farmers today.
The study was recently presented at the conference “Water and environmental engineering in the face of climate change” of the Department of Environmental, Water and Agricultural Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering. Civil and Environmental Technion.
The Need for Better Fruit Picking Robotics
The gap between the number of seasonal workers and the volume of work is expected to widen considerably as the world’s population continues to grow. By 2050, there are expected to be more than 9 billion people in the world, and to feed them all, it will be necessary to increase the volume of food production anywhere 35-60 percent (unless the whole world goes plant-based).
One would expect that with such a crowded world there would be no shortage of personnel, but unfortunately that is not the case.
“People have been moving from villages to cities for decades – and fewer people want to engage in manual labor,” says Degani. “It shows in construction and agriculture, and it happens everywhere, including in highly populated countries like India and China. In India, for example, harvesting coconuts is a very important task – but fewer and fewer people want to work in this field.
According to him, the problem also exists in Israel. “As in many Western countries, there are quite a few years in Israel where the apples fall on the ground because no one is there to pick them in time.”
Degani thinks the solution to these problems lies in robots that know how to pick fruit.
“Just as automation has solved many problems that plague field crops, such as the use of machinery such as combines, once we adapt this strategy to plantations, farmers will be able to better streamline and reduce the uncertainty that currently surrounds the acquisition of skilled seasonal labor at specific times of the year,” he says.
It’s important to note that automating crops needs to be approached differently from those used for field crops, which involve crude, bulky and overly expensive machinery.
“In arable crops, massive harvests are taken across the region, usually indiscriminately,” Degani says. “The picking of edible fruits must be gentle and selective. The fruits must be picked one at a time and handled with care.
Interestingly, he claims that the robotic arms currently used in factories, which have a wide range of motion and precise precision capabilities that humans can only dream of, are not up to the task.
“Although these robotic arms know how to perform a pre-planned operation, their sensing and decision-making capabilities are limited and not suitable for agriculture,” he says. “Farming is a tougher world. Farming takes place in an uncertain environment with fluctuating changes in light and external conditions, so the robot must have complex sensing and decision-making capabilities. According to him, the robot should not be too expensive an alternative because otherwise many farmers will not be able to afford it.
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Degani and his team began to tackle the challenge of developing the harvesting robot by first addressing its maneuverability in the orchard, a more complicated task than it seems.
“For the robot to patrol and sneak through all the trees and detect pests or ripe apples, for example, it needs to know where exactly it is,” says Degani. The orchard environment is relatively homogeneous from a ground perspective, with most trees looking roughly alike and GPS reception not being particularly reliable.
From this obstacle was born the idea of establishing a connection between a terrestrial mobile robot and a drone. The researchers found that using the perspective of a low-flying drone, top-view observation of the orchard provides a unique signature of each tree formed by the shape of its canopy. The first study on the subject was published in the robotics and automation section of the IEEE Review.
Currently, researchers are working on additional ways for the agricultural robot to use small drones to perform the operations necessary for orchard harvesting. First, they demonstrated that a drone could hover over a tree, creating a detailed three-dimensional image of each of the trees in the area. These are needed to make the harvesting process more efficient and reflect a more modern model of precision farming.
“The meaning of ‘precision agriculture’ is that instead of making decisions about issues such as fertilization, irrigation, thinning, pest control or harvesting at the whole field level, we will look agricultural plot at a higher resolution and will make such decisions down to the individual tree level,” says Degani.
This will increase the volume of production, providing the best conditions for each individual tree, and beyond that save the use of resources such as water, fertilizers and potentially dangerous pesticides.
Degani believes the solution lies in the capabilities of a ground-based mobile robot that knows how to navigate wood, perform precise mechanical operations and even pollinate flowers – another separate project currently under development at the lab.
A transition from human to robot?
Today, Degani’s studies are at the prototype stage and demonstrate possibilities for future development. In any case, there are already several automation attempts in the fruit harvesting industry represented by Israeli companies such as FFRoboticsa robot with the ability to imitate human manual picking, and Tevel Aerobotics Technologieswhich has developed a flying harvester that is expected to enter its pilot phase in the coming year.
Beyond that, not only should the identity of the harvester be changed from human to robot, but the structure of the orchard itself should also change.
“The way we design and grow trees will change, and they will be designed in a way that is suitable for robotic harvesting,” says Degani. “Even today, you can see apple orchards around the world that almost look like a two-dimensional wall with fruit growing on it. This is not genetic engineering but mechanical engineering operations designed to grow the orchard as efficiently as possible. The new orchard structure allows for denser planting and is designed to allow easier harvesting for humans and robots. Studies are currently underway to determine the most efficient configuration, in view of an era when robots will enter the agricultural landscape.
Ultimately, according to Degani, everything is about becoming more efficient simply because we have no other choice.
“Even in modern agriculture, the farmer will be very important, but he will need much less labor,” he says. “Like a lot of things, the data will be at the center, to help him make informed decisions, and the robots will carry out the tasks in the field. This is what will drive efficiency so that we can achieve a sufficient harvest target that will feed all humans,” he says.
“Because there will be less land, less resources and less labor over time, a solution must be found. Otherwise, fruits like apples will only be accessible to the very wealthy,” concludes Degani.
For videos of drones in action, click here and here.
The article was prepared by ZAVIT – The Israeli Society for Ecology and Environmental Sciences News Agency