Fruit harvested by what is believed to be the world’s first raspberry-picking robot in commercial operation is now on sale in British supermarkets.
Two robots developed by Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout company from the University of Plymouth, have been harvesting the berries round the clock in polytunnels in a field near Odemira in southwest Portugal.
The farm is run by the Summer Berry Company, which is based near Chichester in West Sussex and is a leading supplier to British supermarkets including M&S, Ocado, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose.
The robots are being used amid shortages of seasonal workers across Europe. U.K. Government officials announced in December they would issue 30,000 six-month work visas this year for the entire horticulture industry, including flowers – the same number as for 2021 – but leaders at trade body British Summer Fruits want an additional 10,000.
The robots, which cost £2 million to develop, stand at 1.8 metres (5ft 11in) tall. Each is fitted with four 3D-printed plastic arms that simultaneously pick raspberries – among the hardest fruit to harvest, as they are softer than other berries and grow on tall bushes at varying heights.
“We are making real progress in the development of our harvesting robots,” said Rui Andres, Fieldwork’s chief executive. “Raspberries are very sensitive so we have had to develop technology that can apply enough pressure to release the fruit from the stem without damaging it. At the same time, our sensors are now so advanced that they can tell if the fruit is ready to be harvested or not, meaning what can be sold is all that is picked.”
The robots are picking 1kg of fruit an hour, with the company working to ramp this up to more than 4kg an hour. The firm is aiming to have a robot picking 25,000 raspberries a day, compared with 15,000 for a human working an eight-hour shift.