Wageningen University developing robots for produce quality control
Innovation was a key theme at the recent Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference in the Netherlands, which happens to be home to the world's leading university in agriculture and forestry, according to QS rankings.
"We’re looking into several items. One of them is robotics but also the quality of the produce, and we’re looking for ways to assess quality objectively with sensor technology," postharvest technology scientist Eelke Westra told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"You don't necessarily need a robot to do that because you can get the sensors in line and assess the quality of the produce, but you can use a robot to direct the sensor to the part of the fruit that is most interesting to look at from a quality perspective."
He said the robotic research was tackling a task normally undertaken by quality managers who use human sensors like sight, smell and taste.
"But we're looking to automate that," he said.
"How do you assess quality? What quality attribute do you want to measure? Is it color? Is it firmness? Is it taste? Is it smell?
"And if necessary, do we need robots to direct the fruits to the sensor or the sensor to the fruits? And can we use robots to handle the fruit accordingly?"
The robot on display was only a demonstration looking at color, but Westra said whole sensor array could be set up to predict which fruit was "ready to enjoy".
Mango is a particular focus point because the fruit tends to be picked immature, thus ripening throughout the supply chain.
"There is a lot of variation in terms of quality and ripeness, so we’re looking into ways of how can we predict when a mango will be in a ready-to-eat or ready-to-enjoy stage," he said.
"At the moment we have a big project named Green Change Fruit and Vegetables, and we're looking at strawberries, mangoes, green beans, table grapes, mushrooms, avocados, papaya, melons - quite a range of fruit, and also pears."
He says the program is all applied research working with partners to get the technology into their supply chains.
"We’re working internationally, and that’s pretty easy because a lot of Dutch-based companies are actually international companies and source from around the world and want to apply the technology," he said.
"At the moment we are very active with a Brazilian grower of mangoes and even doing measurements in the fields to correlate that with the post-harvest behavior of mangoes.
"It’s important for innovation that we actually work with the private sector – we’re not innovating for ourselves, but the benefit of those supply chains and getting better produce to the market. And it’s independent of which market you want to supply, whether its Western Europe, North America, South America, Asia."