The European greenhouse horticulture sector is experiencing great pressure from rising labour costs and reduced capacity, which is resulting in a surge in the demand to automate labour. Dutch industry and growers are working together with an international knowledge consortium (Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Israel) to develop Sweeper, a market-ready robot that can harvest peppers autonomously.
Although the prototype developed in the first two years could pick peppers, it was unable to do so with sufficient speed and precision.
In 2017, an improved version was developed based on test results and advice from growers. Upgrades included a more stable autonomous platform for the robot and an improved gripper function. Intelligent lighting has also been added for the 3D camera, which makes it possible to detect the ripe peppers even better under shifting ambient light conditions. A deep-learning-based method has been developed to determine the position of the peppers in relation to the main stalks; this will aid in positioning the cutting knife precisely as well as in avoiding plant stems and other fruits. For the development of this algorithm, reference images of peppers were recorded with a new 3D camera. This algorithm has been tested and works satisfactorily – peppers are now easier to reach and easier to pick with less damage to the crop and the fruits. The new version has now been assembled, provided with software by Umeå University in Sweden and Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and then functionally tested by Wageningen University & Research.
At the start of 2018, the robot will go to the Research Station for Vegetable Production in Sint-Katelijne-Waver in Belgium to carry out the first semi-practical tests. Especially for this purpose, a trial department has set up an illuminated growth process that yields fruit year-round, also in the winter months. After these tests, the robot will be adapted to an existing concept for post-harvest logistics so that it can ultimately be framed as a market ready product. The testing station has now selected the most suitable pepper variety and cultivation method for robotised harvesting. In the spring of 2018 the robot was tested at the Dutch grower De Tuindershoek in IJsselmuiden and was subsequently demonstrated to the public over the summer.