Strawberry Fields Forever: Computer Vision Aids Precision Harvesting

A robotic berry picker has the potential to change strawberry harvest. With 16 distinct robots within one autonomous vehicle, berries can be harvested quickly and carefully. The computer vision and artificial intelligence that enables such precise picking provides farmers with a trove of data about each plant and the farm, improving crops and profits.

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Image credit: Harvest CROO Robotics

Necessity is the mother of invention, and an increasing labor shortage was the motivation behind Gary Wishnatzki’s invention.

A third-generation strawberry marketer and grower in Florida, Wishnatzki needed more field laborers to harvest the strawberries on the hundreds of acres of farmland that make up Wish Farms. He teamed up with former Intel® engineer Bob Pitzer and began developing Harvest CROO, short for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer, and pronounced “crew.”

After nearly a decade, Harvest CROO is in the field testing its mettle against human workers and more than holding its own.

Precision Picking

Harvest CROO is an autonomous vehicle 32 feet long and 18 feet wide with 16 individual robotic strawberry pickers within it. Using a GPS navigation system, the vehicle slowly drives through a strawberry field as the robots pick, grade, and pack berries in seconds.

Each of the 16 independent robotic pickers has dual vision cameras with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. Each robot spins around the individual plants to get a 360-degree view. The computer vision technology takes more than 200 images per second. In real time, it identifies the ripe berries—even those hidden under leaves—and sends the coordinates of those berries to the picking claw, one of six silicon pinchers on the patented Pitzer Wheel, which can pluck the berry without bruising it and quickly rotate to enable fast harvesting.

Once picked, the robot uses a secondary AI-based inspection system to grade the berries for fresh packing or processing for other consumables. The entire process takes place in less than 15 milliseconds.

CROO Robotics vehicle base for strawberry picking robots.

Image credit: Harvest CROO Robotics

Big Data for Big Decisions

In addition to assessing berry ripeness, AI assesses the health of each plant, detecting disease, projecting crop yields, and giving farmers data on each plant across the farm.

Web-based and mobile applications allow the farmer to schedule, control, and monitor the harvester in real time, and view the pick, grade, and pack processes. The reporting software provides real-time information about the field as a whole, specific plant-based health and performance data, and farm-to-industry comparative analytics.

A LiDAR system is mounted on the Harvest CROO, which provides a 3-D, 360-degree view of the field, the plants, and any obstacles along the path, including objects or people. It can run day or night, allowing strawberry farmers to improve yields and profit margins.

The underside of the CROO Robotics strawberry picking robot.

Image credit: Harvest CROO Robotics

Fast, not Furious

Harvest CROO can harvest 16 plants at a time and can pick through eight acres in a day. The company claims Harvest CROO can do the work of six to 30 human workers. Without a more reliable workforce, Wishnatzki fears strawberries will become a luxury food item.

“If we don’t solve this problem with automation, I really fear what the future is going to be for the strawberry industry in general and also for the availability and affordability of strawberries for consumers,” Wishnatzki says. 

It’s clearly filling a need: more than 70 percent of US-based strawberry growers have invested in Harvest CROO Robotics. For these growers, 20 percent of their crops have gone unpicked due to labor shortages.

Harvest CROO Robotics is testing its autonomous robot in Florida but plans to expand to California, where 85 percent of U.S. strawberries are grown. Future iterations will be adapted to pick other fruits and vegetables.

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