April 9, 2006 Robots are on the march again into the last bastion of labour intensive industry - farming and horticulture. Researchers from Warwick HRI (the University of Warwick's horticultural arm), and its manufacturing engineering section, Warwick Manufacturing Group, are working on a suite of robots and automated systems which could transform farming and horticulture over the next decade. One of the best ideas we’ve seen in a long time is this inflatable conveyor belt developed for UK-based agricultural machinery company Aeropick. Due to an ingenious wheeled and inflatable system, up to 100 metres of powered conveyor belt can be deployed within five minutes to aid the agricultural and horticultural harvesting process and offers massive labour cost savings along with significant increases in productivity. As the belt can be set up to variable length of between 25 metres and 100 metres, it is highly adaptable allowing crops to be processed at high speed straight to cool storage, washing, sorting, grading etc Amazingly, there’s also a mushroom picking robot and Robot Grass Cutter too.
The inflatable conveyor system can be driven into an open field or covered growing area on the Brumby VariTrak base vehicle. The Varitrack can vary its wheel spacing from 1 to 1.5 metres to suit crop spacing and has an additional 10KVA of power for processing, cooling, washing, sorting etc. in the field.
The robotic mushroom picker robot uses a charged coupled camera to spot and select only mushrooms of the exact size required for picking achieving levels of accuracy far in excess of human labour. The mushrooms are then picked by a suction cup on the end of a robotic arm. Whilst the speed of picking is currently just over half that of a human - the mushrooms and the robot can be set to pick 24 hours a day right through the night without the need for a break. The researchers also hope to increase the speed of picking to much closer to that of a human worker.
Mowing the lawn is a drudge but for growers, farmers, even golf course owners, with large amounts of grass land it's a massive problem with every tractor requiring a skilled employee to manage such pastures. Researchers in the Warwick Manufacturing Group are developing a new method which can allow a farmer or grower to deploy multiple robotic grass cutting machines at the same time all under the supervision of just a single employee. They are working with the "Ransomes Spider" grass cutting device which can already be remotely controlled and can even mow on 40 degree inclines. They are replacing that remote control with a computer that can use its own data sensors attached to the mower, to autonomously travel across fields working in groups with other robotic mowers ensure that the field is mowed as quickly as possible.
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