23 Jul 2024


Fruit-sorting robot ‘will disrupt the industry’

A British design and development organisation has produced a robotic gripper and vision system that can distinguish and selectively pick fruit of different varieties, shapes, sizes and colours. Cambridge Consultants says its system paves the way for robots to take on complex picking and sorting tasks involving irregular organic items –  such as sorting fruit and vegetables, or locating and removing specific weeds from a field of crops.

“Traditional robots struggle when it comes to adapting to deal with uncertainty,” explains Chris Roberts, the organisation’s head of industrial robotics. “Our innovative blend of existing technologies and novel signal-processing techniques has resulted in a radical new system design that is poised to disrupt the industry.”

Although robots are usually good at doing the same thing repeatedly in a controlled environment, they can struggle if the task or the environment varies.

To pick up fruit and vegetables in a warehouse, for example, a robot must be able to work around people, cope with irregular items, and adapt to a changing environment. It needs to perform many different tasks, ranging from recognising objects and calculating what order to pick them in, to planning the grip, and lifting and placing the items.

The Cambridge Consultants team has combined high-powered image-processing algorithms with low-cost sensors and commodity hardware to allow “soft” control of robots when the task is not rigidly defined. The system can handle objects for which no CAD (computer-aided design) model exists – a necessary step to using a robot with natural objects that are not identical.

“Our demonstration of the technology has fruit stacked randomly in a bowl,” says Roberts, “with our robot using machine vision and some smart software to identify which piece of fruit is on top. It translates this information into real-world co-ordinates and positions the ‘hand’ to pick the required fruit, whilst avoiding other objects.

“The custom-made hand adapts to the shape of the fruit and securely grips it without damaging it,” he continues. “Once picked, the fruit can also be sorted by colour so that, for example, red apples can be separated from green apples.

“The robot system demonstrates what is possible when you bring together experts from different fields to solve a problem,” says Roberts. “We’ve combined our programming, electronics and mechanical engineering expertise with our machine vision and robotics skills to demonstrate the kind of smart system that could transform a variety of industrial and commercial processes.

Cambridge Consultants predicts that its technology will boost productivity across the food chain, from the field to the warehouse. It is demonstrating its system at trade shows including the Engineering Design Show in the UK this week and AgriTechnica, in Hanover, Germany, next month.