California's strawberry fields may not be forever. Could robots help?
BY SAM DEANSTAFF WRITER
JULY 26, 2022 5 AM PT
In a strawberry field surrounded by strawberry fields on the outskirts of Santa Maria, a team of robots have been picking berries all summer.
Each robot, made by a Colorado company called Tortuga AgTech, trundles between the elevated beds on rugged wheels, then stops in front of a plant. An articulated arm maneuvers its sensor array among the leaves; machine vision software scours the sensor data in search of ripe berries.
Most California strawberry plants sprout constantly over the course of the season — little green berries sitting alongside fat red ones, nestled among the leaves. If an unripe berry is in the way, the robot repositions for a better angle. A snipper-grabber mounted in the middle of the sensors jabs in to cut the berry’s stem, then gingerly places it in a waiting plastic clamshell in a compartment at the robot’s base. The motion calls to mind a bird hunting, peering and pecking for insects.
Since hitting this field in May, the robots are on their way to picking nearly as many berries as human pickers, and with 95% accuracy, according to Tortuga. The grower paying for the work backs up that claim.