Chilean research firm INIA Quilamapu, based in Chillán, has teamed up with researchers from the European Union to develop a robotic harvester that could mean major innovation for agriculture everywhere.
The innovative technology, an automated robotic harvesting system, could be an important breakthrough as countries around the world struggle to address the growing problem of worker shortages. For many farmers in the agriculture industry, existing technology is not specific or careful enough to harvest in the fields, as the crops ripen at different times or could be damaged by clumsy machinery.
This new technology will be capable of both detecting ripeness and handling the produce with the necessary care, according to Lorenzo León, research coordinator at Inia Quilamapu. Already the robot is being tested on apples and wine grapes in Chile, and greenhouse produce in Europe.
“[The project] aims to create a robotic platform for the mechanisation of the harvest process able to distinguish the various degrees of quality, unlike current mechanised harvest systems,” León explained.
The robotic harvester combines various technologies, from top-of-the-line sensors to the latest mechanical systems.
«The equipment is an intelligent platform with sensors which, when standing in front of a plant, can discriminate which fruits are ready to be harvested, as the robot will use the sensors to detect the various degrees of ripeness,” León said. “It also has a mechanical part with an arm currently being developed in Germany, and a manipulator [or hand], which is being tested at Inia Quilamapu.»
The international research team has had the added benefit of year-round harvest seasons between them. As Chile is in the southern hemisphere, the scientists can run tests when typically winter would prevent field studies.
«During the Chilean summer, instruments are transferred to our country to repeat tests carried out in Europe, and thus [generate] complementary information» León explained.
Thanks to its location in the Southern Hemisphere, and its extreme length and diverse geological regions, Chile is one of the biggest exporters of fresh fruits and vegetables. It is number one for fresh grapes, plums, and the second largest exporter of avocados. Chilean wine, of course, is also a major part of the the country’s exports and its culture. Recently Chile’s Valparaíso and Casablanca Valley was named the tenth wine capital of the world.