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Automated Strawberry Fields Forever

by Thomas Masuch - 27/05/2018

Whether it’s self-driving cars, automatic lawnmowers, or Alexa, robots of one kind or another have already begun taking over parts of our lives. These areas are sure to expand in the future, and the end – in every sense of the word – is diffi cult to perceive way down the road. Just recently, the European Parliament argued for legal measures that would grant »electronic personhood« to robots. It also wasn’t long ago that technology pioneer Elon Musk warned of the existential threat that artificial intelligence could one day pose to human society.

In the face of such uncertainty, the project the Belgian company Octinion is currently working on definitely comes as a relief: Instead of a technological evolution on the order of »R2-D2« or »NS-5« (from the movie »I, Robot«), its employees have developed a robot that picks strawberries using a 3D printed arm.

This may sound relatively mundane, but it could defi nitely mean something to the strawberry industry. With its endless rows of greenhouses, Belgium (along with the neighboring Netherlands) is one of the world’s most efficient producers of the fruit. No other place harvests as many strawberries per square meter.

Tastierer than the »water balloons«

Left to ripen under plastic tarps, strawberries from the Netherlands have grown tastier than the »water balloons« the country was once infamous for, but even today, the casual gourmets out there don’t expect a rush of fl avor from Dutch fruit.

On the other hand, you do have to hand it to the country for making such an important contribution to the cultural and historical development of the modern strawberry. Since the Stone Age, the common folk of Europe had been familiar with the tangy, but puny wild strawberry, which they cultivated on large fields in the Middle Ages. Then the Chilean strawberry was crossed with North America’s Virginian strawberry to produce the plump variants we know today, and the Netherlands was where the first of them were grown.

These days, however, the country’s strawberry industry is groaning under the weight of high labor costs and a lack of skilled workers (pickers, that is). Fruit-picking robots could thus aid the Benelux countries in defending their status as the traditional home of greenhouse strawberries against industry giants like China, Mexico, and the United States. One added benefit would be not having to worry about claims for damages: If a robot starts applying too much force while picking, whipping up some nice strawberry jam will still be an option!