Octinion develops greenhouse strawberry picker and autonomous navigation platform - FreshFruitPortal.com

Octinion develops greenhouse strawberry picker and autonomous navigation platform

A Belgium-based R&D company has developed an autonomous strawberry harvester and separate platform that is capable of navigating independently around greenhouses. 

Octinion says the machine can pick 70% of all ripe strawberries without causing damage and is capable of harvesting 24 kilograms per hour, compared to 12-20 kilograms on average for a human picker.

The harvester is mounted onto an autonomous platform called Dribble, which uses beacons to navigate around greenhouses and requires no structural changes to be made to the facility.

Speaking with Fresh Fruit Portal, Octinion CEO Tom Coen, who holds a Master's degree in Electrotechnical Engineering, said the company's mission was to be a commercial R&D house acting as a bridge between research institutions and industry.

He and his two partners decided to go into horticulture as it is the sector with the biggest technology gap.

"Then the logical choice was picking robots because that was the major challenge, and after that we had to decide which crop we were going to pick," he said.

"We said we wanted something with a really long picking season because that facilitates the pay-back and it also makes it easier to actually develop the system as you can test it all year round."

Having narrowed the selection down to greenhouse crops the team ended up choosing strawberries, which Coen said was the most challenging.

However, he pointed out it made sense from an investment standpoint because if the project worked then the team could later transfer the technology onto other fruits, and if it didn't work then moving onto less challenging fruit crops should be less problematic. 

The harvester uses 3D vision for detection and localization of ripe strawberries and uses a patented soft-touch gripper that causes no more damage to the fruit as a human picker.

The robotic arm picks the strawberries from below using a twisting motion. The machine has a capacity of picking one strawberry every three seconds, placing the fruit in boxes on the Dribble platform.

The Dribble can also be used for other applications such as UV lighting, spraying, disease detection and yield prediction.

"One of the challenges we knew from the start was to actually also navigate in greenhouses," Coen said.

"That was something we were a little bit baffled by, that no one seems to be talking about it, but there is actually no way of navigating through the rows of a greenhouse without having an investment in the structure.

"So from the start we began developing Dribble, which works with beacons and allows us to navigate completely autonomously with quite low infrastructure costs."

Octinion is preparing for the commercial launch of the Dribble in the first half of next year.

As for the strawberry harvester, a pilot program is due to take place next year at farms in locations including Belgium, the U.K. and California, with the commercial launch planned for 2019.

The company is now starting to develop picking robots for other fruits, although the details of exactly which fruits are not yet being disclosed.

Coen also pointed out that in comparison to many competing companies, Octinion is fully self-funded and therefore has no reliance on external investors.

Its staff numbers are also expected to double to 50 next year.