Apple-Picking Robot Stems From Labor Shortage

Among all the job-related problems wrought by the pandemic, here is another one that comes as the result of people generally staying home: there are hardly any backpackers to do traditional transient backpacker jobs like picking apples. Researchers at Monash University’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace engineering found a way to fill in the gap by building a pneumatic robot arm that can harvest an apple every seven seconds at top speed.

A suite of cameras and algorithms look for fruit amongst the foliage and carefully remove it by gripping it gently and twisting, much like a human would. In order to do this, the robot must consider the shape of the fruit, the way it’s hanging, and where to separate it from the tree while keeping damage to a minimum. A suction system helps pull the apple into the soft, four-fingered grip and then the arm twists and turns to deposit the apple into the bin.

There are a lot of upsides to this robot, including the fact that it works in any lighting and weather conditions and can ID an apple in less than 200 milliseconds. The only problem is that this operation results in the occasional missing stem — a cosmetic problem that sounds nit-picky, but would definitely prevent some stores from buying the fruit. Well, that, and there only seems to be one of these robots so far.

There are two videos after the break — a short one that gives you the gist, and a much longer one that offers a view of the suction cup, which emerges from the middle of the fingers like a xenomorph’s little mouth.

Some readers may be wondering why apples are still picked individually when shaking harvesters exists. “Shake-and-catch” tends to bruise apples, making them undesirable for produce sellers, however, apples destined for juicing have no issue with being handled roughly by the harvesters as shown in this fascinating harvest video. Robot grippers are gentle and we’ve seen all shapes and sizes that are suited to a particular need. When the needs are more general, rollers or squishy spheres might be the answer.

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Game Boy Plays Forever

For those of us old enough to experience it first hand, the original Game Boy was pretty incredible, but did have one major downside: battery consumption. In the 90s rechargeable batteries weren’t common, which led to most of us playing our handhelds beside power outlets. Some modern takes on the classic Game Boy address these concerns with modern hardware, but this group from the Delft University of Technology and Northwestern has created a Game Boy clone that doesn’t need any batteries at all, even though it can play games indefinitely.

This build was a proof-of-concept for something called “intermittent computing” which allows a computer to remain in a state of processing limbo until it gets enough energy to perform the next computation. The Game Boy clone, fully compatible with the original Game Boy hardware, is equipped with many tiny solar panels which can harvest energy and is able to halt itself and store its state in nonvolatile memory if it detects that there isn’t enough energy available to continue. This means that Super Mario Land isn’t exactly playable, but other games that aren’t as action-packed can be enjoyed with very little impact in gameplay.

The researchers note that it’ll be a long time before their energy-aware platform becomes commonplace in devices and replaces batteries, but they do think that internet-connected devices that don’t need to be constantly running or powered up would be a good start. There are already some low-powered options available that can keep their displays active when everything else is off, so hopefully we will see even more energy-efficient options in the near future.

Thanks to [Sascho] for the tip!

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Robot Harvesting Machine Is Tip Of The Agri-Tech Iceberg

Harvesting delicate fruit and vegetables with robots is hard, and increasingly us humans no longer want to do these jobs. The pressure to find engineering solutions is intense and more and more machines of different shapes and sizes have recently been emerging in an attempt to alleviate the problem. Additionally, each crop is often quite different from one another and so, for example, a strawberry picking machine can not be used for harvesting lettuce.

A team from Cambridge university, UK, recently published the details of their lettuce picking machine, written in a nice easy-to-read style and packed full of useful practical information. Well worth a read!

The machine uses YOLO3 detection and classification networks to get localisation coordinates of the crop and then check if it’s ready for harvest, or diseased. A standard UR10 robotic arm then positions the harvesting mechanism over the lettuce, getting force feedback through the arm joints to detect when it hits the ground. A pneumatically actuated cutting blade then attempts to cut the lettuce at exactly the right height below the lettuce head in order to satisfy the very exacting requirements of the supermarkets.

Rather strangely, the main control hardware is just a standard laptop which handles 2 consumer grade USB cameras with overall combined detection and classification speeds of about 0.212 seconds. The software is ROS (Robot Operating System) with custom nodes written in Python by members of the team.

Although the machine is slow and under-powered, we were very impressed with the fact that it seemed to work quite well. This particular project has been ongoing for several years now and the machine rebuilt 16 times! These types of machines are currently (2019) very much in their infancy and we can expect to see many more attempts at cracking these difficult engineering tasks in the next few years.

We’ve covered some solutions before, including: Weedinator, an autonomous farming ‘bot, MoAgriS, an indoor farming rig, a laser-firing fish-lice remover, an Aussie farming robot, and of course the latest and greatest from FarmBot.

Video after the break:

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Harvesting Energy From The Earth With Quantum Tunneling

More energy hits the earth in sunlight every day than humanity could use in about 16,000 years or so, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying to tap into other sources of energy too. One source that shows promise is geothermal, but these methods have been hindered by large startup costs and other engineering challenges. A new way to tap into this energy source has been found however, which relies on capturing the infrared radiation that the Earth continuously gives off rather than digging large holes and using heat exchangers.

This energy is the thermal radiation that virtually everything gives off in some form or another. The challenge in harvesting this energy is that since the energy is in the infrared range, exceptionally tiny antennas are needed which will resonate at that frequency. It isn’t just fancy antennas, either; a new type of diode had to be manufactured which uses quantum tunneling to convert the energy into DC electricity.

While the scientists involved in this new concept point out that this is just a prototype at this point, it shows promise and could be a game-changer since it would allow clean energy to be harvested whenever needed, and wouldn’t rely on the prevailing weather. While many clean-energy-promising projects often seem like pipe dreams, we can’t say it’s the most unlikely candidate for future widespread adoption we’ve ever seen.

Two-Axis Solar Tracker

Solar panels are an amazing piece of engineering, but without exactly the right conditions they can be pretty fickle. One of the most important conditions is that the panel be pointed at the sun, and precise aiming of the panel can be done with a solar tracker. Solar trackers can improve the energy harvesting ability of a solar panel by a substantial margin, and now [Jay] has a two-axis tracker that is also portable.

The core of the project is a Raspberry Pi, chosen after [Jay] found that an Arduino didn’t have enough memory for all of the functionality that he wanted. The Pi and the motor control electronics were stuffed into a Pelican case for weatherproofing. The actual solar tracking is done entirely in software, only requiring a latitude and longitude in order to know where the sun is. This is much easier (and cheaper) than relying on GPS or an optical system for information about the location of the sun.

Be sure to check out the video below of the solar tracker in action. Even without the panel (or the sun, for that matter) the tracker is able to precisely locate the panel for maximum energy efficiency. And, if you’d like to get even MORE power from your solar panel, you should check out a maximum power point tracking system as well.

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