Robot Aims to Automate Produce Handling

Taylor Hillman Specialty Crops, Technology

Automate Produce Handling
Companies continue to look for ways to automate produce handling, but with some products, that can be tricky. A company at the Forbes AgTech Summit displayed a new conforming claw that might be able to help.

Robot Aims to Automate Produce Handling

As labor issues continue to plague California and the rest of the nation, farmers are looking for more ways to automate. But, there’s still the problem of labor-intensive produce that’s too delicate for machine handling. A company that was at the Forbes Ag Tech Summit in Salinas this month thinks it has the solution. “Today, robots are very good at handling the same thing over and over again. If you give them variety or hand them something that is easily damaged, like produce, they fail. They either can’t pick it because of the different shapes and weights or they damage the product,” Soft Robotics Incorporated CEO Carl Vause said.

Not Your Typical Robot Look

Vause says this technology is different from the hard, metal robots we tend to think of. “Instead of imagining a scary metal hand, imagine something that looks like octopus tentacles that are soft, conformal and can adapt to any shape,” Vause says. “So we have brought this soft, conformal rubber hand to industrial robots. You get all the benefits of speed, production, throughput and rate that you would get from an industrial robot, but now you have a soft hand that can handle all of these delicate items.”

How It Works

Vause explained how these robotic tentacles work without crushing produce. “The question we get all the time is how do you not crush it because we don’t have sensors in the hand,” Vause says. “Since it’s made of rubber, think of picking up an apple with two balloons. You take the balloons and put them on either side of the apple. The more you squeeze the balloons, it wouldn’t put more pressure on the apple, the balloons would inflate through your fingers. The soft fingers put enough pressure to grab the item and then the excess pressure is vented out into the elastic structure.”