“Shortage of labour is forcing smaller asparagus growers out of business, so they ask us three things: how much does our robot harvester cost, does it work and is it reliable?” explains Robyn Sands, Co-founder and CEO of Autopickr, the developer of Gus, an affordable, robust robot for field and undercover operations. Designed to solve a major challenge for the industry, it also offers potential to extend the harvesting season and shelf-life of this high-value crop.
The complex task of asparagus harvesting is the first application for the six-axis, adaptive robot Gus, developed by Cambridge-based Autopickr and presented in the Start-Up Showcase at Agri-TechE’s 2023 REAP Conference.
Asparagus grows its spears in clumps, with new growth appearing in hours. Gus has been designed to select a spear of the right maturity and, using a novel ‘cut and catch’ technology, to pick without squeezing or gripping. This reduces damage to the stem and risk of loss in cold storage. The robot works day and night to ensure all spears are collected, thereby increasing the yield.
Although a recent start-up, the team behind Autopickr has an impressive pedigree. Scientific Advisor David Sands established ST Robotics, which has developed bench-top robotic arms for leading players in the pharmaceutical and engineering sector and has licenced the six-axis technology for other agri-tech applications.
Simplicity is the key to Gus, explains Robyn. “There is temptation to over-engineer robotics and add features that the grower may never need. We have co-designed Gus from the ground up with growers, to offer a smart solution from a machine with a price point similar to that of a grader and washer, another piece of equipment that many growers would buy.
“Keeping it simple also means it is easier to use and cheaper to maintain, so the life-cycle cost is lower.”
Being on-farm with growers showed the team that the robot arm needed to work at different angles to accommodate rough ground in the field, and also to operate beside the row, to enable use within a polytunnel or to navigate posts in a greenhouse. The six-axis robot arm provides the functionality to offer this. Growers are experimenting with covered crops to extend the harvesting season, so an agile robot with a small footprint and precision cutting offers versatility.
Scott Rumble, Director of Cambridge Asparagus, said: "For the asparagus industry as a whole, whether you are a small grower like Cambridge Asparagus or a large enterprise, the necessity of mechanising the harvest is ever more apparent. Each season we see a growing issue with labour. The availability, quality and cost of labour is by far our greatest concern. This is the sole reason why we are reluctant to increase our production even though the demand for our asparagus is twice of what we can supply. How can we plant more crops without the labour crisis being addressed?
“When David, from Autopickr, contacted Cambridge Asparagus it couldn’t have come at a better time. Since then it has been a pleasure working with the Autopickr team; whilst developing Gus, we have learnt a lot from each other and they really understand the requirements of the grower.
“Since Autopickr has a robot harvester in development, which is an affordable solution, Cambridge Asparagus has planted further crops this season and we will continue to do so.”
Robyn is looking forward to meeting other agri-tech start-ups and potential end-users at REAP. She says: “We are very open to collaboration, as we have also designed a rugged, farm-proof and low-cost farm vehicle to carry our technology around – and this is attracting the interest of other early-stage companies. It would be possible to repurpose this technology for other equipment.
“We are always interested in feedback from end-users, particularly now as we approach a final commercial product, and of course meeting new investors is also useful as we are starting to prepare for our seed raise in February.”
Find out more at autopickr.com
Find out more about REAP at reapconference.co.uk.
Image: Autopickr’s CEO Robyn Sands (left) with commercial grower Scott Rumble, Director of Cambridge Asparagus [credit: Agri-TechE / StillVision Photography]