COVID-19 has highlighted the dependence of Huelva's strawberry sector on labor, as its scarcity has had a significant impact on the current campaign. For Juan Bravo, CEO of the Huelva-based company Soluciones Robóticas Agrícolas, S.L. (Agrobot), devoted to the manufacture of innovative agricultural robots, "it is only a matter of time before we see our machines in Palos, Cartaya or Lepe."
“Our harvesters can work on any strawberry crop, be it on soil or in hydroponics; however, the percentage of fruit that the machine manages to pick is dramatically lower on soil. This is because in hydroponics, most strawberries are exposed, with no leaves in front. In Huelva, a large number of growers have opted for hydroponics and its varieties adapt very well to our technology,” says Bravo. “Therefore, our machine could work perfectly in Huelva. In the past few years, the focus with Agrobot has been on California, because all our funding comes from the US industry.”
Bravo stresses that Agrobot is the world's first company to market a strawberry harvester. "There are many prototypes of strawberry harvesters, most of them quite advanced, but none have ever been marketed," he says.
The initiative to develop robots for the harvest of crops which require selective harvesting was launched more than ten years ago. "After seeing how tough the agricultural tasks were, especially in greenhouses, I decided to try making things easier by using robots," says the CEO. “Within a few months of the company's creation, my partners joined us, and together we have gone on this whole adventure together. For the first few years, this was more of a "garage" project, but a few years ago, large California-based companies looked at what we were doing and decided to bet on us financially."
“Our machinery can be divided into four parts. You have the vehicle, or platform; a simple three-wheeled vehicle that provides physical support for the robotic arms and supplies them with electricity. A series of sensors allows us to move the vehicle through the crop without the need for a driver. There are several robotic arms mounted on the vehicle, specially designed to operate in a very aggressive environment, with dust and moisture. The arms are in charge of moving the clamp to the next fruit that we want to pick and then to where the containers are. The brain of all this is the camera that is part of the computer that keeps track on everything: the fruits' location, peduncle or ripeness, the algorithms of the robotic arm's movement, communications with the vehicle or the control of the electro-mechanical clamp. The latter is in charge of cutting and holding the stem of the strawberry,” says Bravo.