Britain is facing a strawberry labor shortage that only threatens to get worse as Brexit approaches, so roboticists at the University of Essex are working in conjunction with jam makers Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree to develop robots to take up the slack. Led by Vishuu Mohan, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, the team's goal is to build a robot that can work in field conditions alongside human pickers.

Strawberries and cream are the quintessentially British summer treat, and no cream tea would be complete without strawberry jam. The UK grows over 115 million tonnes of the soft fruit yearly worth £1.1 billion (US$1.4 billion) and the sector has grown 132 percent in the last decade.

To tend and harvest the crop, the country employs around 18,000 seasonal workers each year. Over the past generation, the majority of these workers have come from the Continent (mostly from Romania and Bulgaria), but falling unemployment in those countries has caused labor shortages in the UK in recent years resulting in 20 percent of the crop going unpicked.

This shortage is also projected to become even worse after Britain leaves the European Union next year, so Mohan's team is looking to a robotic alternative. In other words, robots that can work in the natural, unstructured environment of a farm alongside human workers. Not only do these robots need to be able to gently pick soft strawberries without bruising them, they also need to be able to do so in any weather. In addition, they need to be able to check for ripeness, disease, and size.

To achieve this, the Essex team is currently working with a special strain of low-hanging strawberry. These are being used to help create a pair of robotic arms that combine with a vision system to recreate how humans can find berries in foliage and adapt their behavior to changes in the environment.

"Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it is a complex, integration of vision, touch, force and movement and on top of it the ability to learn and adapt, which is the only way to deal with any changing, unstructured environment," says Mohan.

Mohan says that a prototype of the strawberry picking robot should be ready in a few months.

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