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Automating agriculture with light weight robots

Across agriculture automation systems are superseding strenuous manual labor. A new dual-arm robot for the automated harvesting of cucumbers has been successfully tested.
The new advance for agriculture comes from Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK, with the concept designed for the European Union CATCH project. The lightweight robot has the potential to keep crop cultivation commercially viable in Germany.

The conventional way of picking cucumbers involves seasonal workers laying down on their stomachs on top of a low-level agricultural vehicle to pluck the ripe cucumbers. The process is labor-intensive and not very productive, leading to a relatively high per-unit cost for harvesting.

Due to labor shortages, many parts of cucumber farming has begun relocating to Eastern Europe and India, where labor costs are lower. This trend has led to renewed focus in Germany and by the European Union to develop better harvesting technologies. These technologies include robotics.

The CATCH project stands for ‘Cucumber Gathering — Green Field Experiments’. Here the objective is for academia and industry to devise flexible, cost-efficient and reconfigurable hortibotic outdoor solutions for automated harvesting in challenging natural conditions. To assess critical problems the use case of outdoor cucumber harvesting has been selected. As models become successful, the robot concept will be rolled out to other agricultural produce.

The new robot is of a dual-arm design composed of low-cost lightweight modules. The robot has tactile perception capabilities and the robotic arm movements have been based on human actions. The robot has been tested out for automated cucumber farming where, compared with manual labor, the robot is capable of a high-performance and it is dependable (with a rate of picking at least 13 cucumbers per minute). This reliability extends to poor weather conditions.

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