Harvesting is the only part of the lettuce life cycle that is done manually, says co-author Julia Cai, who worked on the computer vision components of the Vegebot.
In addition to identifying which lettuce to pick, the researchers were also able to adjust the pressure in the robot’s gripping arm so that it held the lettuce firmly enough not to drop it, but not crush it. The force of the grip can be adjusted for other crops.
“We wanted to develop approaches that weren’t necessarily specific to iceberg lettuce, so that they can be used for other types of above-ground crops,” says Fumiya Iida, PhD, who leads the team behind the research.
Robotic harvesters also could be trained to harvest around the clock. Currently, each field is harvested once and unripe food or vegetables are discarded. A robot could be trained to pick only ripe vegetables and perform multiple passes on the same field on different days to harvest produce that ripens later.
Birrell says the researchers are working on a project to have the Vegebot learn so it can improve its performance as it operates.
“Beyond that, we’re interested in working with commercial companies who would like to turn it into a product for the market,” he says.