Researchers in the U.K. are working at turning newly developed imaging technology into an intelligent harvesting machine. Using microwave measurement, the system can look beneath the leafy layers of a crop, identify the differing materials, and enable precise size identification. Such a machine could minimize wastage in crops like cauliflower and solve an impending labor shortage for U.K. farmers caused by a fall in the number of migrant workers.

The researchers from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, working with KMS projects and Vegetable Harvesting Systems (VHS), have developed a methodology for crop identification and selection focusing on cauliflower crops, one of the hardest crops to measure due to the large amount of leafage that covers the vegetable.

The research team began by modifying microwave measurement systems to measure a cauliflower’s structure after they found that radio frequencies, microwaves, terahertz and the far-infra red parts of the electromagnetic spectrum all have the potential to safely penetrate the crop layers and identify the size of the harvestable material for a relatively low cost.

To provide a statistical range of measurements for precise size identification of the cauliflower the researchers studied real crops in the laboratory and in the field. This data forms the basis of an algorithm to enable a simple size indication from a raw measurement.

A successful demonstration of the imaging technology was given recently at the Fanuc Robotics site in Coventry. This proof of its potential for the harvesting of cauliflowers, lettuces and other similar crops has attracted further commercial support from G's, one of the largest lettuces growers in the UK, to take the project forward and develop the complete product. The final technology will be developed for a first generation harvester and tested in a real farming environment with the team saying it could be available as early as next year.

According to farmers who were consulted during the research annual waste for certain crops can be up to 60%, which can translate up to UKP£100,000 of lost revenue for an average farm every year. NPL’s aim to develop a unique new automated harvesting machine that will dramatically improve productivity in the UK and global farming industry could ultimately benefit consumers through cheaper food in the supermarkets.