STRAWBERRY-picking robots could be the future for fruit farms as experts at Essex University experiment with machines in the field.

Robotics experts are collaborating with Tiptree's Wilkin and Sons as part of a major project looking at how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments where they can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits.

The idea is for robots to work alongside humans which could help reduce production costs down the line.

Given up to 20 per cent of soft fruit in the UK remains unpicked due to a lack of workers, farms are having to look at alternative ways of harvesting their crops in the future.

Dr Vishuu Mohan, of the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, is leading the research in Colchester.

He said: “The challenge is no two berries are the same - they come in different shapes, sizes, order of ripeness and many are hidden in the foliage. “Also the environment keeps changing constantly - sunny, windy, rainy - in contrast to a typical industrial environment.

"Hence, dexterous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today.”


One billion strawberries are picked by hand at Tiptree each year by workers who have half a second to check the strawberries for ripeness, disease and size.

Dr Mohan added: “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 on top of the ability to learn and adapt, which is the only way to deal with any changing, unstructured environment."

To help the first part of the project, which is to get robots to identify ripe fruit, scientists are working with a special variety of strawberry that has low hanging fruit.

Work is also underway to enable robots to select and pick them with a prototype potentially available in a few months’ time.

General farms manager at Wilkin and Sons, Andrey Ivanov, called it a "ground-breaking project".

He said: "Fruit picking may seem a simple task but picking the fruit without touching the berry will be a challenge.

"We need to ensure the fruit we grow always arrives with the customer in perfect condition.”

The research will then look at bi-manual robotic coordination to recreate how humans pick with two hands, active vision to find berries among foliage and learning to counteract changing environmental conditions.