Experts are developing a robot to replace human strawberry pickers as farms struggle to find workers due to Brexit.
Around 20 per cent of soft fruits are going to waste due to a shortage of workers, University of Essex researchers say.
This will worsen when Britain leaves the EU, scientist claim, which has led to farms looking for alternate solutions to harvest crops.
Dr Vishuu Mohan a computer science and engineering lecturer who is leading the project, said: ‘The challenge is that no two berries are the same – they come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage.
‘Also the environment keeps changing constantly – sunny, windy, rainy – in contrast to a typical industrial environment.
‘Hence, dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today.’
he demand for strawberries has skyrocketed over the last 22 years with Britons consuming 101,000 tonnes yearly- up from 67,000 in 1996.
In 2015, the soft fruit industry employed 29,000 seasonal workers.
But by 2020 the seasonal worker requirement for UK soft fruit production will increase to 31,000, it is forecast.
A survey by the National Farmers Union shows that last year there was a 12.5 per cent shortfall of seasonal workers required to work on horticulture farms
Dr Mohan’s team is looking at how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack fruits.
He hopes that the robots will be able to work alongside humans in a farm environment and also help reduce production costs.
He added: ‘Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it is 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, unstructured environment.’
The university is also working alongside farmers and jam makers Tiptree to complete a prototype of the robot.
Andrey Ivanov, manager of Wilkin and Sons farm in Essex, said: ‘It could take years, or it could be just six months.’
‘Robots can help in many industries for repetitive work on a production line, but with strawberries, they have to overcome changing conditions throughout the day – and they have to first be able to find the berry in the plant.
‘Fruit picking may seem a simple task but picking the fruit without touching the berry will be a challenge. We need to ensure that the fruit we grow always arrives with the customer in perfect condition.’
A prototype of the robot is expected to be ready within a few months and it is expected to be able to pick low hanging strawberries.
Researchers will then begin to work on bi-manual robotic coordination which will recreate how humans pick with two hands and will have active vision to help find berries hidden by foliage.