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June 10, 2021
By Fred MillerU of A System Division of Agriculture@AgNews479Fast facts:
Download related PHOTOS
CLARKSVILLE, Ark. — Do robots dream of electric blackberries?Doubtful. But they may one day pick fresh blackberries for the rest of us if Renee
Threlfall’s graduate students have anything to say about it.The students have built a prototype robotic blackberry picker. It was displayed Wednesday
during the Summer Blackberry Tour at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station’s
Fruit Research Station near Clarksville.The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas
System Division of Agriculture, which hosted the tour. The event was sponsored by
the Arkansas Blackberry Growers Association and featured research updates and blackberry
management presentations by the division’s researchers and Cooperative Extension Service
specialists.More than 60 blackberry growers, industry members, students and representatives from
the Arkansas Department of Agriculture attended the tour.Robots in the berries“Fresh market blackberries are mostly hand harvested to maintain the quality of this
delicate fruit,” said Threlfall, research scientist for the experiment station. “Labor
shortages and costs, and the slow speed of hand harvesting creates a bottleneck for
fresh-market blackberry industry expansion and market-ready supply.”Automated harvesting options like shaking the plants, cutting the stems or using rigid
grippers are used for other fruits, Threlfall said. “These options are not feasible
for harvesting fresh-market blackberries because they might cause quality issues like
berry leakage or red drupelet reversion.”Soft robotics offer a novel option for automatic harvesting by using compliant grippers
of rubber or silicone, said Anthony Gunderman, a mechanical engineering graduate student
who designed a robotic “hand.” These materials allow grippers to grasp and manipulate
delicate objects, like berries, with complex and varying shapes.The robotic harvesting research group is comprised of food science graduate student
Andrea Myers and mechanical engineering students Gunderman and J.A. Collins. Their
faculty advisors are Threlfall from the department of food science and Yue Chen, assistant
professor of mechanical engineering.They set out to determine how the human hand grasps and plucks the berries so they
could design a robotic gripper that could mimic the movements, touch and pressure.
Myers said the student team collected the mechanical data on human hands by wearing
gloves fitted with sensors that measured the movements, which fingers are used, and
the force required to harvest blackberries without damaging them. The data was used
to design and construct the robotic “hand” with tendon-driven, soft grippers.The prototype was used to harvest blackberries from a commercial fruit farm at three
fingertip pressures, Threlfall said. The robot-picked berries were evaluated for quality
attributes essential for acceptable market-ready blackberries.“The prototype demonstrated the feasibility of using robotic grippers to harvest fresh-market
blackberries,” Threlfall said.Gunderman said more research and development will be necessary to build a robotic
harvester that can locate and differentiate ripe berries from unripe berries on the
plant. “We’ll have to use technology that can recognize color bands of light,” he
said.Threlfall acknowledged the support and participation of Arkansas blackberry growers.
“Our team looks forward to working with growers as research continues,” she said.Preemergent herbicideMatt Bertucci, assistant professor of sustainable fruit and vegetable production,
described research on preemergent herbicide use in newly planted blackberries being
conducted by his graduate assistant Kayla Knepp.Weed control is important, Bertucci said, because weeds can interfere with crop production
in a number of ways. They reduce yields by competing for light, water and nutrients.
They also may release allelochemicals that stunt plant growth.Weeds may also harbor insect or disease pests, Bertucci said, and can slow harvest
or interfere with “U-pick” fruit farms.“The relationship of weeds with crops is intrinsically antagonistic,” Bertucci said.
“Weeds are undesirable plants trying to occupy the same niche and fighting for the
same resources as crops.”Preemergent herbicides typically control only germinating or very young seedlings,
Bertucci said. “Timing is important. It must be applied before weeds emerge.”Bertucci said the preemergent herbicide must be activated with 72 hours of application
by 0.5 to 1 inch of rain or irrigation.
Post-emergent herbicides that kill weeds that are already growing offers limited options
for newly planted blackberries, he said. So Knepp set up an experiment to determine
what preemergent herbicides can be used without killing the berry plants. She set
out to learn what effects the applications would have on the establishment and growth
of newly transplanted blackberry plants in Arkansas and to generate data on weed control
and crop response.The information, Bertucci said, can be used for regional recommendations and applications
for supplemental labels on herbicides used for blackberries grown in Arkansas and
the southern region.Knepp’s research was initiated this year and will continue in 2022. Six preemergent
herbicides are being evaluated in test plots located on the Fruit Research Station
near Clarksville and on the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center
in Fayetteville.Knepp is also conducting container tests in a greenhouse that will permit evaluation
of a larger number of preemergent herbicides, Bertucci said.“Kayla is trying to answer questions about what is economically and culturally applicable
for blackberry producers,” Bertucci said. “The results will provide data to better
inform the industry.Full agendaThe blackberry tour had a full schedule of indoor and field presentations for participants.
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural
Experiment Station website: aaes.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch.To learn about Extension Programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension
Service agent or visit uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @AR_Extension.
About the Division of AgricultureThe University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen
agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption
of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative
Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work
within the nation’s historic land grant education system.The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas
System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension
and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity,
sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran
status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative
Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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