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Agriculture – The Future of Crop Harvesting

Meet the World’s First Strawberry Picking Robot

A number of developed countries undergo a shortage of labor in the agricultural sector that threatens the sustainability and preservation of the industry. Dozens of European farms could disappear from the market unless they find a solution to affordable operating resources.

Currently, less than 5% of the available workforce in Western Society are employed in agriculture. Many decline jobs due to hard and unattractive work, as well as lower salaries, compared to other sectors. A raise in salaries could become an unbearable burden for the sector, as the cultivation industry would become too costly and thus economically unviable. Considering the fact that labor represents over 40% of the inputs, the issue gets exacerbated. Tightened rules and regulations for Labor migration don’t work in the favor of farmers either. Especially, in the times of recent Coronavirus Pandemic and in the face of stalled mobility, many farms were left vulnerable to workforce shortage or complete unavailability.

In the recent decade, several agricultural R&D companies have been focusing on reducing costs and advancing cultivation systems. Precision farming and robotic automation are some of the emerging technologies that have given promising results. There are a number of robot prototypes, especially in the area of harvesting, that could be a viable alternative to costly human labor and provide substantial savings to farmers in the long run.

Octinion and Its Rubion – Meet the Pioneers in robotized strawberry harvesting

Octinion is a Belgium-based innovative R&D company that specializes in mechatronic solutions for the agricultural industry. They have designed and crafted an autonomous strawberry-picking robot – Rubion, that harvests berries like an ideal human-picker without bruising. The innovative robot was first presented to the world in 2019 during Fruit Logistica in Berlin.

Octinion specifically focuses on tabletop systems that are quite common in Europe as well as expanding elsewhere. Rubion has a unique nature as it picks strawberries only in case if the action will not result in bruises. The robot collects at least 70% of all ripe berries and all of them damage-free with a picking speed of 5 seconds. Rubion results in higher picking and sorting quality as well as constant productivity, unrestricted timeframe, and new management tools with gathered data.

At this very stage, Rubion does not fully replace manual labor, as the remaining strawberries still need to be picked due to their unreachability to the robot. But further research and development could improve the picking ratio in the favor of the robot.

How does the Strawberry Picking Robot Work?

As mentioned earlier, Rubion possesses a fully autonomous system that requires no human intervention throughout its operation. The system comprises seven components: the electric vehicle, the localization system, the camera detection system, the custom-designed robotic arm, the gripper, the logistic handling module, and the quality monitoring software. Thanks to built-in quality monitoring, the robotic system allows for sorting, advanced crop monitoring, and precision farming. Rubion picks up around 360 kg of strawberries per day, compared to 50 kg a day for a productive human picker.

Why Strawberries?

According to the CEO of the Octinion Technology Group strawberries are one of the most standardized crops that grow all-year-round, thus the investment can pay itself off faster than it would do compared to apples let’s say. In addition, strawberries are quite vulnerable to the skills of the pickers due to their softness and easily damageable properties.

How about the competitors?

There are several companies with similar concepts and technologies on the market or close to commercialization. However, the majority of them are not suited for tabletop cultivation despite the growing application of the latter. The earliest prototypes were designed in Japan that were fitted in specially adapted greenhouses. Nevertheless, these options did not prove to be economically viable in other markets such as Europe due to high investment costs for redesigning greenhouses.

US competitors Harvest-Croo and AgroBot have also created robots for open-field cultivation. Nonetheless, the machines are quite large and costly. The Dogtooth system from the University of Cambridge is also an autonomous machine for table-top cultivation. However, the machine cuts the strawberry stem instead of removing it. Searching for the stem is quite a time-taking process and because of the small wound left after cutting, diseases can enter the plant much easier as well.

What does the future of Harvesting look like?

From today’s perspective, employing robots in future harvesting looks more than just real. Farmers could potentially utilize a number of benefits that are associated with automated harvesting and fill workforce gaps that arise from time to time in fieldwork operations. Nevertheless, it’s fair to acknowledge that there are further developments needed in the areas of cost reduction as well as improving the robotic applications for other crop types.

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A Very Futuristic Dinner! The debut of Synthetic Chicken Bites

Two-thirds of today’s farmlands are being used for meat production while developed nations showcase the highest rates of meat consumption per capita. By as soon as 2050, the world population is expected to surpass 9 billion. According to FAO, meat consumption levels are set to mirror such exponential growth of mankind and shall nearly double in a few decades from now.

Although there are millions of farmers employed in livestock production, at this rate of growth, humans will need to avail more land for the cattle. Expanding farmlands and maximizing pressure on the output can have detrimental consequences on earth causing numerous environmental damages from overcrowding to deforestation. Livestock contributes to global warming through unchecked releases of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Moreover, we simply don’t have enough land or water to keep up with ever-increasing meat demand by growing livestock.

Considering the above challenges, our future generations might be left on the edge of food insecurity. This fact leads us to the ultimate conclusion: humans either need to reduce the consumption of meat or alternatively switch to a more efficient way of producing it.

What is cultured meat? 

Cultured meat is an efficient and sustainable alternative to slaughtering animals. It refers to the concept of creating meat via cell culture. Everything from muscle cells to fat cells, connective tissue, blood, and other components. The production of cultured meat starts with taking a number of cells from an animal and proliferating them in a nutrient-rich culture medium, where they are capable of multiplying. This growth takes place in a bioreactor, that looks similar to the bioreactors that beer and yogurt are fermented in. There is no genetic modification involved in the process, as the cells do the same as they would normally do within an animal. From a single sample from a cow, 800 million strands of muscle tissues can be produced, that could potentially equal hundreds of pounds of beef.

How is the production of lab-grown meat progressing? 

Back in 2013, the world watched Dr. Mark Post create the first-ever lab-grown burger without slaughtering a single animal. However, this small pink patty took around 2 years and over $300’000 to be produced. Since then, the cost of producing synthetic meat has been decreasing. E.g. in 2016, Memphis Meats produced meatballs for $1000. And today, we have a company that has obtained approval for producing and selling lab-grown meat in one of the most forward-thinking countries of the world – Singapore.

How about a synthetic dinner – maybe some chicken bites? 

Singapore has been renowned for being the hub for innovation, technology, and a futuristic approach. The state granted San Francisco-based startup “Eat Just” the right to sell its lab-grown chicken on its territory, becoming the world’s first government to allow the sale of synthetic meat. Chicken bites are set to debut in Singapore Restaurant shortly, with successive plans for expansion into dining and retail. The product shall be priced on par with the premium chicken, while the price is expected to fall down in the coming months. Co-Founder and CEO of “Eat Just”, Josh Tetrick, hopes to reach US and European markets in the near future as well.

Implications for the Future

It is undoubtedly that synthetic meat is way more eco-friendly than traditional livestock slaughtering. Having the option of cultured meat basically eliminates the need for maintaining cattle. This fact has several considerable implications. Humans can potentially cut down on energy consumption by as much as 45%, decrease the use of the land and water as well as reduce greenhouse gases.

Moreover, consuming lab-grown meat might as well reduce the risk of food-borne diseases, as well as of those transmitted between the animals. Synthetic meat can easily be supplemented by vitamins and minerals that are not characteristic of the usual meat.

Although we see numerous potential benefits to cultured meat alternatives, several trust issues have been arisen around its consumption, as people usually associate synthetic meat with genetically modified products. Moreover, many argue, that mass production of cultured meat could cause thousands to lose their jobs as well. Some consider that synthetic alternatives could give rise to obesity and cannot provide for the same taste as naturally slaughtered meat.

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