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The Creepy-Cute Robot That Picks Peppers With Its Face

The Creepy-Cute Robot That Picks Peppers With Its Face

September 26, 2018

Robotics & High-Tech

WIRED – Rejoice! The machines won’t be taking over the world anytime soon, because doing the most basic of tasks still confounds them. I mean, have you thought lately about how hard it is to pick a ripe bell pepper?

Fine, me neither. But researchers in Israel and Europe certainly have. They’re developing a robot called SWEEPER that can autonomously roam a greenhouse, eyeballing peppers to determine if they’re mature enough before sawing them off the plant and placing the produce in a basket.

Think of SWEEPER like a self-driving car, only with a saw on its face and a hunger for peppers. To find its way around the rows of the greenhouse, it uses sensors like lidar (the spewing forth of lasers to determine distance). As it creeps along the plants, it stops every few feet to take images of them.

“The moment it finds something sort of like a pepper, it will try to approach it,” says Polina Kurtser, BGU Ph.D. student in computer vision and robotics. It then takes a more detailed look, craning its head (with attached camera) back and forth to examine the fruit from multiple angles. It shines its own light at the plants, which means it can work in the greenhouse day and night.

It’s at this point that SWEEPER is looking closely at color. When bell peppers mature, their colors change unevenly—some bits of the fruit will turn yellow, while splotches remain green. This is an indication that the pepper is getting there but isn’t fully ripe, which is exactly where the robot wants it, because the fruit will continue to ripen en route to market.

Now the fun part: The robot positions its head so the small saw on its brow rests above the stem, and the scoop on its chin hangs below the pepper. It cuts the fruit free, dropping it into the scoop, then turns and places the pepper in a collection basket.

It does this once every 24 seconds. “You might say it’s a bit long at the moment, because a human worker is capable of doing it in three to four seconds,” says Kurtser. “On the other hand, a worker isn’t working 24 hours a day.” Plus, the researchers have been running the robot in a slow mode out of safety considerations for the humans working around it—they figure they can get the picking time down to 15 seconds.

Read more on the WIRED website >>