Agricultural R&D specialist KMS Projects conceived the idea to create a selective automated harvester that could reduce the need for manual harvesting, subsequently reducing production costs and improving harvesting speeds.
More than 75,000 tonnes of broccoli are grown and harvested across the UK each year, with commercial growers typically relying on a team to manually harvest crops. The monotonous work often takes place in unpleasant working conditions and can lead to repetitive strain injuries and other long-term health conditions.
The automated harvester sees three FANUC 6-axis M20iB robots mounted onto a rig, powered and driven by a tractor. Each robot arm is fitted with a cutting tool and can harvest a head of broccoli every three seconds – twice as fast as a manual picker.
The hollow wrist and body of the M20iB robots not only keep weight to a minimum, but are also rated to IP67, to guarantee reliable operation outside and protect against dust, soil and water ingress. Servo technology and 6-axis range of movement also help to facilitate fast, intricate operation within the harvester’s confined rig area.
A built-in visual detection system works in conjunction with the FANUC robots to ensure only those broccoli heads which meet pre-determined size requirements are harvested. The automated rig is also able to work effectively throughout the night to further boost productivity.
Realtime data analysis can be monitored both from a HMI in the tractor cabin, and remotely from a central office.
Peter Keeling at KMS Projects, says: “While the UK’s agricultural industry is an integral element of our national supply chain, growers are facing spiralling production and harvesting costs which have the potential to cripple the industry, and drive production overseas. Having grown cauliflower myself, I know all too well the monotonous and labour intensive task of manually harvesting vegetables. We have spent the last ten years developing what we believe to be the first automated selective harvesting rig.
“FANUC has been a central partner for many years, from the initial testing and simulation stages using simple cardboard boxes, right the way through to the design of our single-module pre-production rig in time for the UK’s 2018 broccoli season. We will conduct further field trials this year, and use the empirical data to fine tune the performance, with a view to building a small number of three-headed rigs in time for commercial use in the 2019 season. In short, this has the potential to help growers drive growth and become more profitable.”
Oliver Selby, technical sales support engineer at FANUC UK, comments: “The benefits of industrial automation are far-reaching and it is fantastic to see KMS Projects using FANUC robots to make a tangible difference to home-grown vegetable production. Broccoli picking is just one great example for the use of robotics in agriculture. In time, we will see more and more applications develop as the industry accepts and adopts the need for automation in order to stay competitive. There is no escaping from the fact that UK growers are facing significant cost increases over the coming years, however innovations such as this can go a long way to offsetting the potential negative impact and help future proof the industry for years to come.”
While the system is currently tailored to broccoli harvesting, it has the potential to be adapted to automate the harvesting of other brassica and leaf crops such as cabbage and lettuce, both in the UK and beyond.