from the September 2003 issue

A Water Melon Loving Robot

While robots are commonly used in automobile factories doing such jobs as painting and welding, they are rarely seen in agriculture. Robotics is usually associated with the manufacturing industry, where it has had a history which is checkered, to say the least. In agriculture, the opportunities for robot-enhanced productivity are immense - and the robots are appearing on farms in various guises and in increasing numbers.

Watermerlon is grown in 90 countries with worldwide production exceeding 50 billion pounds per year.

The United States is the world's fourth largest producer. According to the Department of Agriculture 70% of American households buy watermelon. The essential 'robotic' blending of intelligent sensing with mechanical actuation can be found in vision-guided tractors, product grading systems, planters and harvesters, applicators for fertilizers and pest control. Robot manipulators can divide plant material for micropropagation in sterile conditions; others can skin fruit for canning.

Harvesting melon is a labor-intensive activity. In the United States manual labor is relatively expensive. Israel is a country short of farm laborers. Taking these considerations into account researchers in both countries have sought mechanized solutions for labor intensive agricultural pursuits.

A team of Israeli and U.S. researchers has designed a vision-endowed, melon-picking robot to do the job. The robot is the result of a collaboration of three Israeli Institutes of higher learning including Ben-Gurion University, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Agricultural Research Organization and the American Purdue University. It is now being commercialized. The researchers took into account the price issues whereby labor, both in Israel and the United States, is relatively expensive.

The machine consists of a mobile platform on which are mounted an image-processing system, air blowers and a mechanical arm with a gripper attached. As a tractor slowly pulls the platform through the field, cameras take pictures that the system analyzes. The air blowers ruffle the foliage to expose the fruit. When the harvester sights a melon bigger than a certain size and therefore presumed to be ripe it extends the gripper to grab the fruit and lift it off the ground. Onboard software evaluates the image's shape, brightness, and texture to locate the melons. Knives connected to the gripper slash the stalk and the gripper places the melon on a conveyor belt.

The harvester named VIP ROMPER a tractor and picker that guides itself down rows of maturing melon plants with only occasional human steering corrections. A chemical sniffer determines whether the fruit is ripe. A basketlike gripper on the arm gently grabs the melon, "like a hand folding around it and lifts it as a knife cuts the stem," states Professor Yael Edan of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

In field tests, VIP ROMPER correctly identified melons ripe for picking, 85 percent of the time. Prof. Edan estimates a two-armed version could attain a picking rate of one and a half seconds per melon.

Reprinted from the Israel High-Tech & Investment Report September 2003

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