A fruit-picking robotic arm can figure out when a particular fruit is ready for picking and decide which grip to use so as not to damage it. Matthew Stock reports.
Fruit is delicate, so picking it is still often done by human hand. But this robotic system is smart enough to autonomously sort and move different fruits without damaging them. Developers Cambridge Consultants say it has the cognitive ability to work out how to best handle items that vary in shape. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHRIS ROBERTS, HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL ROBOTICS AT CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, SAYING: "Traditional robotic systems typically pick up exactly the same object from exactly the same place and move it to somewhere new; always doing the same action over and over again. But there are places, there are applications where robotics aren't used at the moment where they could be if you can build in this capability of dealing with natural variations and small changes in the environment into the robotic system itself." The robot uses low-cost and easily available hardware, such as Microsoft's Kinect image sensor, that takes into account not only size and shape, but also colour. Its intuitive algorithms help it recognise the correct objects and calculate the order in which to pick them. The claw-like gripper uses sensor-packed vacuum tubes that adapt to handle the fruit securely without damaging it. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHRIS ROBERTS, HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL ROBOTICS AT CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, SAYING: "And only applying a vacuum to the ones that gripped, the ones where there's a seal, we can spread the pressure across the fruit so we're not bruising it but we still apply a consistent pressure that allows us to pick up heavier objects." Similar 'smart' robots could transform many industrial and commercial processes, and collaborate better with humans. (SOUNDBITE) (English) CHRIS ROBERTS, HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL ROBOTICS AT CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, SAYING: "When robots come to interact with people, people aren't as predictable as a production line. So the robot needs to be able to deal with changes in the environment and if someone moves an object from one place to another the robot needs to cope with that." Humans co-operating with robots in the workplace might still be some way off. But ever more advanced processing power means it's closer than ever to being within our grasp.