At Utsuomiya University in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan’s leading producer of strawberries, a harvesting robot is being developed to pick and package strawberries without human hands ever touching the delicate fruit.
Equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) controls, this harvesting robot selects only the ripest strawberries, plucking them at the stem rather than the hull, and gently places each strawberry in an individual capsule.
Fully ripe strawberries picked in this way will stay fresh and unblemished for 10 days or more. Tochigi growers are planning to use these robots to harvest their top-grade Skyberry brand strawberries for shipping to overseas high-end consumers.
Getting Over the Export Hurdle
Tochigi has boasted the highest strawberry yields in Japan since 1968. With annual production averaging 25,000 tons per year, the prefecture accounts for 15% of the domestic strawberry market. According to Tomoaki Goto, head of the Tochigi prefectural office responsible for agricultural policy, economics, and distribution, this is due in part to the prefecture’s close proximity to the Tokyo metropolitan area, a major market, and its ideal climate for strawberry-growing—sunny winter days and sharp temperature differences between day and night.
However, Goto says, though Tochigi prides itself on being Japan’s “strawberry kingdom,” when it comes to exports, it does not hold top ranking. Since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster, Taiwan and Hong Kong have banned imports of agricultural produce from Tochigi Prefecture and that ban is still in place.
In 2015, Japan’s strawberry exports totaled 408 tons, but, as of 2016, Tochigi’s share was only 444 kilograms. The prefecture is aiming to more than double that volume by exporting at least one ton in 2017, but it will be a struggle.
Tochigi has launched a publicity blitz targeting Southeast Asia, where its reputation has not been damaged by the Fukushima nuclear accident, and is holding strawberry tasting parties at 10 famous restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore. The hope is that the introduction of its top-quality Skyberry brand will boost exports.
The Skyberry is large, averaging more than 25 grams, but retains the conventional strawberry shape and has a well-balanced sweetness tinged with just the right tartness. This Tochigi brand is well able to hold its own against the better-known Omaoo of Fukuoka Prefecture and the Saga Honoka of Saga Prefecture.
Yuu Yuu World Co. Ltd., based in Utsunomiya, Tochigi, is working to expand the prefecture’s strawberry exports. Yasushi Tezuka, who heads the company’s sales planning and development division, is hopeful. “People are so amazed by how great Japan’s strawberries taste, they can’t believe they’re really strawberries. Our strawberries aren’t cheap, but our clientele tend to be wealthy.”
Superior Taste Award
Japanese strawberries, including the luscious Skyberry, are difficult to export because they bruise so easily and do not stay fresh for very long. Exports could be expanded, however, if these two problems could be resolved. Professor Koichi Ozaki is trying to do just that through his robot research at Utsunomiya University.
“A long stem means less likelihood of bruising the strawberry. This seemed like an urban myth until we found farmers who seemed to be able to pick their strawberries without damaging them. Nothing to do with plant biology; they were simply picking by snapping off the stem [instead of picking the strawberry from its hull],” says Professor Ozaki.
Ozaki is involved in a joint prefectural government-academia-industry project to develop strawberry-picking robots. Currently, a prototype robot moves freely around a hydroponic strawberry garden spotting ripe strawberries through its camera lens. When it detects a ripe strawberry, the robot extends a scissored arm to cut off the strawberry at the stem rather than the hull. The scissors are designed so that the robot can carry the picked strawberry without dropping it to the ground.
Ozaki has also developed in collaboration with Associate Professor Masaru Kashiwazaki a special capsule container for transporting the picked strawberries. Named the “Furesheru,” this capsule has a plate to which the stem can be tied to fix the strawberry in place and a domed lid to protect the strawberry from bruising. Because the strawberry is anchored, it doesn’t touch the domed lid, even when the capsule is shaken.
These individual capsules have made the impossible, possible: the shipment of fresh, ripe strawberries. Ozaki said with pride: “With this container, the strawberries will stay fresh for at least 10 days. And if the conditions are right, they can be kept fresh for nearly a month.”
In 2014, Ozaki, Kashiwazaki, and others in Utsunomiya University’s Institute of Engineering and Agriculture Technology set up a limited liability company, i-eat Co., Ltd., to manufacture and sell the Furesheru capsules. Ripe Skyberry strawberries individually packed in Furesheru capsules have been awarded the Superior Taste Award from the International Taste & Quality Institute (iTQi), a world-renowned institute based in Brussels.
Furesheru-packaged Skyberry strawberries were quick to sell out in major Tokyo department stores, even at the price of 1,728 yen per strawberry. At 200 yen each, the Furesheru capsules are costly, but Professor Ozaki said: “They are still attractive to affluent customers looking for gift items. The capsules should become much cheaper once they come into more common use and can be manufactured in large volume.”
Possible Solution for Another Problem
The robot Professor Ozaki’s team is developing may prove to be a solution for another critical problem confronting Japan’s agriculture industry, and that is the problem of aging farmers with no successors.
Tochigi Prefecture has undertaken a number of initiatives to try to attract young people to farming. Tsutomu Imura, head of the management technology section of the prefecture’s agricultural policy division, said; “Robots can harvest produce at night, thereby helping to increase a farmer’s income. And agricultural experience and knowhow is not so necessary if robots can be used. The robots may help us attract more young people to farming as a career.”
The future looks bright for Japan’s harvesting robots.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese)