The automation of repetitive tasks in construction and manufacturing has been around for some time. Last month, Panasonic introduced an agricultural robot at Tokyo’s International Robot Exhibition that could have implications for workers in the fruit-picking business.
Harvesting tomatoes is more complicated than you might think. Each fruit has to be plucked from the vine once it is ripe enough, not before. It’s also a delicate operation: tomatoes bruise easily and a single scratch in one can lead to a whole box going bad, fast.
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Panasonic robot harvests tomatoes
To handle the perception and dexterity-related challenges that come with fruit picking, Panasonic’s new robot relies on a combination of camera, range image sensor and artificial intelligence technologies.
First, it recognizes which tomatoes are ready to be picked. Then, it performs a precise cut-and-catch technique to move each tomato from vine to bucket.
The robot can be mounted on a rail, enabling it to slide along one vine from start to finish. In terms of speed, Panasonic expects the robot to perform at least as well as a human, harvesting at an average pace of 10 tomatoes per minute.
However, as the robot doesn’t need breaks, pay rises or sick days, it’s easy to see where the attraction might lie in terms of wider efficiency gains.
Panasonic has so far only demonstrated its harvesting robot and no announcement has yet been made regarding its readiness for market or cost.
With great dexterity comes great responsibility
The rise of computer vision and faster, more agile robots has made complex tasks accessible to automation. Tomato picking is just one example.
Last month, Ocado released footage of a new bagging robot, capable of picking products and carefully placing them into shopping bags based on the shape and weight of each item.
This level of processing and dexterity could pave the way for applications that go far beyond monotonous tasks in agriculture and retail.