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New pepper-picking robot isn't fast, but it can work 20 hours a day

Image: The SWEEPER robot is the first sweet pepper harvesting robot in the
The Sweeper robot is designed to harvest ripe peppers in a greenhouse. -
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Farming worker shortages are getting worse. In a survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation last year, 55 percent of the 762 farmers surveyed said they had experienced employee shortages. That's why researchers are now trying to tackle this problem with robots.

Researchers from Europe and Israel have built a robot that can pick ripe peppers in a greenhouse. The prototype, called Sweeper, is backed by the European Union as part of its Horizon 2020 innovation program.

To do its job, Sweeper uses a camera that can recognize the color of a pepper. Computer vision then helps the robot decide if the fruit is ripe for picking. If it is, Sweeper uses a small razor to cut the stem before catching the fruit in its "claws" and dropping it into a collection basket below.

To pick a single pepper takes about 24 seconds, though the researchers say they purposefully slowed down the robot's movements for safety reasons. Sweeper is also equipped with LED lights so that it can work regardless of the time of day, for about 20 hours/day. Still, the robot is far from perfect, with only 61 percent accuracy in picking ripe fruit.

Sweeper is not the only harvesting robot out there. Argobot is testing a machine that picks strawberries, Green Robot Machinery has a cotton-picking robot and Israeli start-up MetroMotion is working on a tomato-picking bot.

According to Market Research Engine, the agricultural robots market is expected to reach $75 billion by 2025. The creators of Sweeper hope the robot will not only help counteract the farming labor shortage, but also reduce food spoilage. Though Sweeper still needs some work, the team expects to have a commercial version available in three to five years.

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