The world's most advanced sweet pepper harvesting robot, developed in a consortium including BGU researchers, was introduced recently at the Research Station for Vegetable Production at St. Katelijne Waver in Belgium.
SWEEPER is designed to operate in a single stem row cropping system, with non-clustered fruits and little leaf occlusion. Preliminary test results showed that by using a commercially available crop modified to mimic the required conditions, the robot currently harvests ripe fruit in 24 seconds with a success rate of 62 percent.
The BGU team spearheaded efforts to improve the robot's ability to detect ripe produce using computer vision, and has played a role in defining the specifications of the robot's hardware and software interfaces, focusing on supervisory control activities.
Polina Kurtser, a Ph.D. candidate in BGU's Department of Industrial Engineering and Management and member of the team, says robotic harvesting will revolutionize the economics of the agriculture industry and dramatically reduce food waste.
"The Sweeper picks methodically and accurately," she says. "When it is fully developed, it will enable harvesting 24/7, drastically reduce spoilage, cut labor costs and shield farmers from market fluctuations."
Additional research is needed to increase the robot's work speed to reach a higher harvest success rate. Based upon these latest results, the Sweeper consortium expects that a commercial sweet pepper harvesting robot will be available within four to five years, and that the technology could be adapted for harvesting other crops.
North America is the second largest producer of sweet (bell) and chili peppers in the world with a 31 percent market share. In 2017 Europe accounted for more than half the world's pepper supply (53.2 percent) with exports valued at $2.7 billion.
SWEEPER is a partnership between BGU, Wageningen University & Research, and pepper grower De Tuindershoek BV, in the Netherlands, Umea University in Sweden, and the Research Station for Vegetable Cultivation and Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics in Belgium.
The project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No 644313.
The BGU team includes Prof. Yael Edan, director of the ABC Robotics Initiative and a member of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management; Prof. Ohad Ben-Shahar of the Department of Computer Science and founding director of the Interdisciplinary Computational Vision Laboratory. Other team members include Ph.D. students Boaz Arad, Ben Harel, Rotem Mairon; ABC Robotics Lab Engineer Shai Givati, as well as BGU postdocs Dr. Ehud Barnea and Dr. Efrat Taig.