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Essex university has created a robot to help save fruit picking from a jam

As reported in The Big Issue, Brexit has seasonal EU workers and Brits are unwilling to get their hands dirty – but robots are being developed to fill the gap

The Big Issue recently dug into why Brits are unwilling to pick fruit for a living amid fears that Brexit will see the seasonal EU workforce that powers the industry dry up.

Production is down with an estimated 20 per cent of fruit going unpicked, but consumer demand is up and the industry is struggling to meet the increased.

Now, the University of Essex has struck up an unlikely partnership with jam makers Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree which could see farmers lead the way in robotics and automation. And its robot arm is being developed to arrive just in time for Britain to the EU next March.

The project looks at the way robots could pick, inspect and package soft fruits. Assessing the ripeness of a piece of fruit is something the human eye can do in half a second, so the researchers must design the arm-like gadget to be similarly efficient.

The industrial-wide use of such gadgets – which use sensors and 3D cameras to manoeuvre – could also drastically reduce production costs.

Project lead Dr Vishuu Mohan said the biggest obstacle is constructing a smart robot to work in a natural, unstructured setting. “The challenge is that no two berries are the same – they come in different shapes, sizes, orders of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage,” he explained.

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“Also, the environment keeps changing constantly – sunny, windy, rainy – in contrast to a typical industrial environment. Dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today.”

He added: “Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it’s a complex integration of vision, touch, force and movement and on top of it the ability to learn and adapt – which is the only way to deal with any changing environment.”

For human workers, the hours are long and the hourly targets are strict – and when it comes to picking fruit, Brits have been curiously absent.

Every year between March and November, 29,000 temporary workers make the journey to UK farms to harvest soft fruits like strawberries. Nearly 95 per cent of them are EU citizens, with the majority hailing from Romania and Bulgaria.

That’s why researchers behind the berry-picking android hope a prototype will be up and running before Brexit hits in March 2019. Numbers are already down as our departure from the EU looms, the future uncertain and exchange rate suffering; but experts predict that the end of freedom of movement could result in a labour gap of devastating proportions.

Tom Canning, vice president of devices at software company Canonical, calmed fears about automation monopolising workplaces and industries. “The thought of robots in farming shouldn’t be misinterpreted as fleets of machines replacing human jobs.

“Instead, smart robots will complement humans in the field and remove menial, time-consuming tasks from farmers, freeing up their time to add value other processes.”

The University of Essex researchers aren’t the first to venture into the world of robotic farming. Belgian start-up Octinion previously trialled their own robotic arm in the UK, and Cambridge tech experts Dogtooth have already developed their own fruit-picking prototype which has been tested out in Australia. Plymouth University’s ‘GummiArm’ robot also has similar functions.

Image: University of Essex

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