The next raspberries you eat might have been picked by a Kraken-like four-armed robot, rather than a human. 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 south-west 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. The UK government said in December it would issue 30,000 six-month work visas this year for the entire horticulture industry, including flowers – the same number as for 2021 – but the trade body British Summer Fruits wants an additional 10,000.
The robots, which cost £2m to develop, stand 1.8 metres (5ft 9in) tall and each is fitted with four 3D-printed plastic arms that simultaneously pick raspberries – among the hardest fruit to pick, as they are softer than other berries and grow on tall bushes at varying heights.
When the first iteration of the robot went on trial in the UK three years ago, it had one harvesting arm that gingerly approached the fruit and took a full minute to pick and deposit a berry into a punnet. Since then its sensor technology and grippers have been completely redesigned to reduce slippage and harvesting time.
“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.”
He told the Guardian the robots were 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.
Fieldwork has leased the robots to the Summer Berry Company and hopes to have five robots operating by the end of the year, and a further 40 next year on its 130-hectare (320 acres) farm near Odemira, where raspberries can be harvested all year round. It is getting requests from other farmers every week.
Three-quarters of the raspberries picked at the Odemira farm by the robots end up in British supermarkets, with the rest going to retailers across Europe. UK farmers have long grappled with a shortage of seasonal fruit pickers that was exacerbated by Brexit, but other countries are also struggling to recruit enough workers for the back-breaking work. There are reports on poor working conditions and exploitation among seasonal farm workers from campaign groups including the Work Rights Centre.
Andres said: “Some people are afraid we steal jobs, but [farmers] can’t find enough workers at the moment.” Fieldwork’s declared aim is to make autonomous robots that can operate alongside human workers and ensure any gaps are filled, rather than replacing humans. Its charges for the robot harvesting service are similar to what seasonal workers are paid, Andres said.
Nick Marston, chair of British Summer Fruits, said: “In 2021, the percentage of returnees from the EU coming via pre-settled status fell substantially below the level expected by farms. We expect levels to fall again next year.
“While the British berry industry has made significant strides in recent years toward automation, tasks on farms are complex and highly variable. As such we are still a number of years away from seeing automation and robotics widely adopted as a means for harvest.
“Right now, we are still in the early stages of the berry seasons, but we do anticipate some labour shortages. It is therefore essential that the Home Office grants the additional 10,000 visas now in order to avoid delays.”
Fieldwork is also trialling its robots to harvest tomatoes and cauliflowers, and to spray crops. They can be adapted for different kinds of produce by changing the software algorithms and tools at the end of the harvesting arms.
The company, which is now based in Cambridge, was launched in 2016 to develop and commercialise the work of Martin Stoelen, who is its chief science officer and the robot’s inventor. Stoelen, an associate professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences and a former lecturer in robotics at Plymouth, moved from aerospace engineering into robots and took inspiration from his grandparents’ farm in Norway.
Fieldwork raised £675,000 from existing and new investors in March 2021 and has received more than £850,000 from the innovation agency Innovate UK to scale up the robots. Stoelen owns a 17.6% stake in the company and Andres has 4% including options, while the University of Plymouth and IP commercialisation specialists Frontier IP are among the main backers.