Raspberry robots

University of Plymouth spinout Fieldwork Robotics has signed an agreement with a leading UK soft-fruit grower to expand development of its harvesting robots.

The company, created by Lecturer in Robotics Dr Martin Stoelen, is currently creating innovative robots capable of picking a range of fruit and vegetables.

This new agreement with the Hall Hunter Partnership (HHP), brokered by the University’s commercialisation partner Frontier IP, will enable it to prototype and field test a raspberry harvesting robot system.

Proof of concept has been shown in laboratory conditions, but the collaboration will enable the company to field test and further refine the technology by working in a range of environments, such as fields and polytunnels, under different climatic and light conditions. Field tests are expected to start later this year.

Once the technology has been successfully field tested, it can be easily adapted for other fruit and vegetables, and the company is already developing robots for other crops following interest from leading agribusinesses.

Dr Stoelen is working on a tomato harvesting project with Sun Qiao at the Shanghai Jiaotong University in China. He is also developing applications for cauliflowers after receiving funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £10million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council. He said: 

“The collaboration agreement we’ve signed with Hall Hunter is a big step forward for Fieldwork and the team at the University of Plymouth. I’m looking forward to seeing our robots operating in the field.”

The Hall Hunter Partnership grows 14,000 tonnes of raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries and its major customers include Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Tesco. The family-run business owns farms and glass houses in Berkshire, Surrey and West Sussex and also runs a farm in Portugal.

Hall Hunter Partnership chief operating officer David Green said: 

“HHP has always led the soft fruit industry in pushing forward productivity and quality standards on our farms and nurseries. This partnership with Fieldwork Robotics is an exciting new development to pioneer the harvesting of raspberries robotically at a commercial scale, we are looking forward to our first human-free hectare to be picked together.”

Frontier IP specialises in commercialising university intellectual property, and owns a 27.5 per cent stake in Fieldwork Robotics as well as having interests in a number of other University of Plymouth spinout companies.

Frontier IP chief executive Neil Crabb said:

“Working with industry partners is absolutely vital to ensuring university IP is developed in a way that meets real-world needs and can be scaled up properly. We’re delighted to collaborate with one of the UK’s leading soft-fruit growers to take Fieldwork Robotics’ technology through the next stage of its development.”