Humans Still Best Machines In The Berry Patch

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Credit: Dan Charles/NPR

Thanks to Dan Charles and his salt colleagues at National Public Radio (USA) for this look at one of machine-learning’s agricultural challenges:

Robots Are Trying To Pick Strawberries. So Far, They’re Not Very Good At It

Robots have taken over many of America’s factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.

But can they pick a strawberry?

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The strawberry-picking robot enters a field near Duette, Fla.
Dan Charles/NPR

“You kind of learn, when you get into this — it’s really hard to match what humans can do,” says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)

Any 4-year old can pick a strawberry, but machines, for all their artificial intelligence, can’t seem to figure it out. Pitzer says the hardest thing for them is just finding the fruit. The berries hide behind leaves in unpredictable places.

“You know, I used to work in the semiconductor industry. I was a development engineer for Intel, and it was a lot easier to make semiconductor chips,” he says with a laugh.

Pitzer’s strawberry-picking robot is about to meet its latest test. It’s rolling, ever so slowly, into a strawberry field near Duette, Fla.

This contraption drives itself. It’s as big as a bus, long enough to to straddle a dozen rows of strawberries at once. Powerful computers are sitting on top. Underneath, there are high-definition cameras to find the berries, and an array of robotic claws ready to pick them.

“Nobody’s telling it what to do,” explains Paul Bissett, the chief operating officer of Harvest CROO Robotics. “It’s remembering its path down the row. It’s remembering where all these plants are.”

It knows all this, thanks to super-accurate GPS. Its computer brain contains a map showing the exact locations of every strawberry plant in the field. When it gets to a strawberry plant, bright lights flash; cameras spin in a circle.

“They’re creating stereo images of the strawberries as they’re spinning around,” Bissett says. “When it finds one — you just saw the claw reach down, grab it.”

The dance of machinery is truly impressive, but I notice that the baskets are still practically empty. The robot really isn’t picking many berries.

Are the berries thwarting technology? Bissett says no: For this demonstration, he says, they’ve programmed the machine to grab just one berry per plant…

Read the whole story here.

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