Accurate control of a low-cost soft robotic arm for automated strawberry picking

REFERENCE: CTP_FCR_2020_5

Supervisors: Khaled Elgeneidy (University of Lincoln), Dr Charles Whitfield (NIAB EMR)

This student will be registered with the University of Lincoln. Beginning in October 2020, the successful candidate should have (or expect to have) an Honours Degree (or equivalent) with a minimum of 2.1, in Mechanical Engineering, Robotics, Mechatronics, or related subjects.

Background

The UK alone produces 120,000 tons of strawberries a year (British Summer Fruit Association, 2017) and yet is only the 13th largest producer of strawberries in the world against 3 million tons produced globally. The harvesting of this significant strawberry production is currently heavily labour-intensive, employing over 29,000 seasonal fruit pickers, who are becoming increasingly difficult to recruit due to the unattractive nature of the job, low wages and seasonal demand. Recognising the challenges in recruiting sufficient human pickers, the industry is under significant pressure to consider automating the harvesting of strawberries via novel robotic solutions.

Objectives and approaches

The PhD candidate will work on the development and control of a bespoke soft robotic arm for strawberry picking. The objective is to provide a low-cost flexible manipulator that can be deployed on a fleet of robots to address the current challenge in harvesting strawberries due to labour shortage. The soft arm should enable reaching strawberries through clutter with the required grasping pose and delivering of picked strawberries by utilising the soft arm’s morphology. The work will consider online learning control methods to account for material nonlinearities and unknown external forces, in order to improve the positioning accuracy during dynamic interaction with the environment. This is expected to involve embedding flexible sensors to provide the necessary sensory feedback.

Training

The successful candidate will join a large team of researchers developing robotic solutions to address the global challenges facing crop-based agriculture. The University of Lincoln is home to Lincoln Agri-Robotics (LAR), the world’s first global centre of excellence in agricultural robotics, as well as the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS). The University is also the lead institution for the new EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Agri-Food Robotics (AgriFoRwArdS), together with partners at the Universities of Cambridge and East Anglia.

Researchers at the University of Lincoln benefit from excellent facilities and equipment, such as the Franka arms and a fleet of Thorvald mobile robots, as well as strong links to an extensive network of industry partners across the agri-food chain. Additionally, the university’s 200-hectare Riseholme Campus, hosts a robotic fruit farm, including strawberry polytunnels for testing robots in a realistic environment.

Application

Anyone interested should contact recruitmentctp@emr.ac.uk for the application form and return the form to recruitmentctp@emr.ac.uk citing the reference before the deadline of 28th February 2020.

Contact Dr Khaled Elgeneidy (kelgeneidy@lincoln.ac.uk) for an informal discussion.