Project Newsletter #22

April 2022

SoftGrip H2020 project coordinator

Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, The BioRobotics Institute

What is the project's primary purpose, and what was its inspiration?

The three-year EU-funded SoftGrip project is developing a robotic system that could revolutionise the harvesting of delicate produce. The project’s main use case is in fresh mushroom production where recruiting and retaining harvesters has become a major challenge. While mushroom consumption is on the rise, many growers are struggling to harvest all their crops and sometimes have to cut back production due to the lack of skilled labour. If we take into consideration the challenging working conditions of high humidity, enclosed conditions, and unpredictable time schedules that can change due to the nature of the crop, it is no wonder that skilled harvesters are hard to find.

It is important to note that mushrooms are extremely delicate and require special treatment to avoid blemishes or other damages to the mushroom, which would significantly reduce quality. Therefore, harvesting, in contrast to transport, trimming and placement of mushrooms in product containers, has always been conducted by humans and not robots. SoftGrip aims to modernise this process by developing soft robotic grippers that can learn how to effectively pick mushrooms by imitating the complex and delicate movements of experienced harvesters. Our mission is to make this agritech research initiative into a low-cost and scalable solution that will significantly boost the productivity of the mushroom industry, helping producers to address existing labour issues and directly supporting small to medium farmers in Europe.

Which are the industry-changing innovations that the SoftGrip team has been developing?

In essence, the SoftGrip consortium will be working on teaching soft robotic grippers in the ways of skilful harvesters through expert demonstrations of the picking process. The overall goal is to equip the soft robotic grippers with algorithmic intelligence that will coordinate and control the physical movements of the grippers. Then, they will be able to effectively observe in detail the grasping surface in front of them, control their grasp, and monitor their motions and applied forces to perfectly imitate a real-life harvester.

Additionally, apart from the robotic nature of the grippers, the project will also look into novel functionalised structures and materials that are soft and self-repairable. At the same time, they should be capable of actuating movement in a controlled manner, extracting insights from sensor data and controlling how the pressure distributes when coming in contact with a mushroom. This way, the soft robotic grippers will be programmed to adjust their grasp to the size of different mushroom caps and know the precise twisting and pulling moves that can successfully outroot them. Last but not least, the 'intelligent' materials to be developed for the surface of the gripper will be food-safe and recyclable, making SoftGrip a consumer-friendly and sustainable innovation.

What are the target industries for the project's commercialisation, and how instrumental are agri-food networks like agROBOfood?

SoftGrip, now in its second year of existence, still has the mushroom industry as its primary target. Yet, the possible applications for the soft robotic technologies are not limited to mushroom harvesting since the project aims to expand to other delicate produce like vegetables and soft fruit. Regarding agri-food networks like agROBOfood, the project aims to participate in events, conferences and workshops and interact with other projects to enrich its existing use cases and gain valuable knowledge for new potential applications. SoftGrip also intends to explore collaborations with SMEs that can help build a solid exploitation strategy around its technologies and wish to transform their business by using SoftGrip. All the above contributions will help the project have a greater impact on the strategically important agricultural sector in the long run.

For more information, visit the SoftGrip project website.