Belgian engineering company Octinion has developed what it is touting as a “fully autonomous strawberry picking robot.” If you’ve ever wondered how those baskets of fresh strawberries get to your supermarket, Octinion would like the answer to be, from the pincers of their creation. Agriculture is doing its best to integrate high tech into their industry, from self-driving tractors to state-of-the-art monitoring systems. Now, they are hoping that with this creature they will be able to move berry picking into the 21st century.
In addition to being able to pick strawberries without damaging them at a rate of one every five seconds, the machine is equipped with the capability to distinguish when a strawberry is at the perfect ripeness for picking. Its ability to carefully remove the berry from the forb was one of the most challenging parts of developing the automated picker. The plucking portion of the machine was finally perfected with the development of a soft touch gripper that distributed the pressure of the grasp evenly over the strawberry’s entire surface rather than applying it at only two points on the berry. This gripper is 3D printed out a rubber-like material that gives it the same cushioning feel as the human hand.
Finding a way for the robot to know when the strawberries were actually ready to be picked and giving it the capacity to do so without also yanking off handfuls of greenery were the final steps in building a machine capable of rivaling the skill of human berry pickers, but the Belgian company claims they have conquered both of these obstacles as well. As CEO Tom Coen explained in an interview with Digital Trends:
“We have developed a fully autonomous strawberry picking robot. It’s able to navigate autonomously with centimeter precision. Thanks to local beacons, no structural changes to a greenhouse are necessary. Using our 3D vision system, the robot can perfectly detect and localize ripe strawberries. Our patented soft touch gripper than picks strawberries without bruising, just like a human picker. Most importantly, the robot picking cost is now competitive to the human picking cost…Our robots will be picking strawberries for pilot partners in 2018. We expect that we will have about 100 robots in greenhouses worldwide in 2019.”
What does this mean for those human pickers who are currently employed? It doesn’t look like it is good news. Picking is difficult work and jobs doing so are often filled by migrant workers, some of whom have been coming to work for the same berry farms for generations. There are currently a number of conflicts between pickers and growers in the berry industry as pickers ask for fair wages and better working conditions and growers look for ways to reduce costs and maximize profits. The introduction of a berry picking machine could spell disaster for the families whose lives depend on the money earned during picking.
As technology advances, more human beings find themselves out of work as a result. The debate is in which instances is this an improvement for society and in which is it a detriment. Just because a technology exists and a person can be replaced by it doesn’t mean that is a benefit to society. More often than not, the benefits for such replacements are accrued by a small number of individual shareholders in a company and devastating for a large number of working class families. Yes, a machine may be more efficient, but should efficiency always be the goal?
One of the things that makes 3D printing worthy of recognition is the fact that it requires the development of its own ethical codes. It’s more than just a machine for popping out gadgets, but rather a complete and powerful medium for reimagining how we think about technology, production, design, and humanity. For example, the debate that rages around the fact that it is possible to 3D print a gun is a robust and complex one that raises issues of the responsibility that creators and users of technology have for potential damage made possible through their technology. With the development of a machine that can undertake the activities that constitute gainful employment for hundreds and provide support for thousands, what responsibility do those at the company that creates it have for the impacts of their desire to create?
This is no easy question to pick apart (pun only realized later). The folks at Octinion will most likely never know the people who they displace with their technology, but there is no doubt that their curiosity will lead to drastic changes in picking families’ lives. And it’s not certain that removing these jobs, which can be arduous, poorly paid, and unstable, won’t lead to better employment opportunities elsewhere. There is much to be learned from the automation of industries such as steel and auto manufacturing in terms of how this might develop.
There are, no doubt, important lessons for technology that will only later become apparent; what else might this kind of soft grip that can delicately handle berries be able to be modified to do? Could it lead to the development of robots that could cradle preemies as they are in the NICU, too delicate to be handled by human hands and yet needing to feel the human touch? Or maybe it will be repurposed to collect scientific specimens from difficult to access locations? It’s not possible to simply condemn or applaud developments such as this automaton wholesale because the ramifications are so complex. That’s what makes this such a fascinating field.
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