Richard Dudley imagines a world where strawberries grow in perfect rows and every day a robot army tastes their colors before harvesting the ripe ones. No, that isn’t LSD talking. The research scientist at the United Kingdom’s National Physical Laboratory is building a bot that uses multiple wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation to identify the sweetest, ripest fruit — then plucks it from the vine.
Strawberries are a fickle, high-value crop, and harvesting them is costly. Lucky for Dudley, though, they can be grown in a variety of robot-picking-friendly ways. He isn’t first to the droid-worker game — organizations in Spain, Japan, and the United States have produced tractors with gripping arms — but all of them have the same disadvantage: They have trouble differentiating between the leaves and the fruit. Dudley’s ‘bot solves this problem by analyzing the plants with a combo of micro-, radio, terahertz, and far-infrared waves.
So far, microwaves work best for strawberries. The waves find the fruit and measure its water content — an indicator of ripeness — effectively taking a taste test. “With microwaves, leaves are actually quite transparent,” Dudley says. He describes it as a safe “x-ray eye,” since actual x-rays would irradiate the crop. He hopes to work with a company that builds robotic arms to make the tech a commercial reality for farmers within a year. Sounds — er, tastes — like a winner.