Getting a Grip
Facing an ongoing farm labor shortage that leaves tons of crops unharvested each year, giants in agriculture are banking on automation as an answer to this costly problem. A number of companies are closing in on a strawberry picker that can identify ripe fruit, grip tenderly enough to pluck the berry from its stem without damage, and operate during the cool nighttime hours when bruising is less likely. Millions of dollars are being poured into developing a device to pick this one particular crop.
A solution for one crop is nice, but Santa Clara’s Robotics Systems Laboratory (RSL) is looking to expand on the use and marketability of such a tool by designing a robotic arm end-effector—the claw-like part that interacts with the plant—that is adaptable for a number of different crops, say strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes.
This is a new project for the RSL, so lab director Christopher Kitts tasked civil engineering junior and De Novo Research Fellow Mai Sinada with getting it off to a good start. “I spent five weeks acquiring preliminary knowledge and building a database on the topic of soft robotics and agriculture—determining what products are commercially available, studying designs, learning about specific applications, and researching the market,” she said. Next, she created a tradeoff analysis, market and design analysis, and wrote a conclusion before diving into prototyping a variation of a currently available end-effector. (The RSL maintains detailed wiki pages for each project so work can progress seamlessly as students graduate or move on to other pursuits.)
Following up on her thorough research, Sinada began the fun work of designing and testing new form inserts for the device. Using both rigid and flexible materials, she continued to iterate for the next five weeks, changing the spacings in the gripper, and shaping the form inserts to be more adaptive to their respective use.
“I used Solidworks [3D CAD software] to come up with designs and printed them out using the 3D printers in the Maker Lab,” she said. Sinada was already Maker Lab trained; as a first-year representative for SCU’s student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, she had organized a lab training event for all NSBE general members.
“The De Novo Fellowship has been great and the atmosphere in the RSL is very welcoming,” she said. “I was looking for an opportunity on campus instead of starting with a co-op or external internship. I wanted to learn how to look at problems from an academic standpoint. This experience gave me early exposure to project management and deadlines that will help me with my senior design project next year, and when I move into my real-world career I will bring a researcher’s work ethic with me. I love being able to make something and using my hands when doing it. I need to touch and hold and move something in order to learn, and engineering encapsulates that. ‘Engineering with a Mission’ is what drew me to Santa Clara and building something that impacts someone’s life is a challenge that makes this field so rewarding. I’m so happy I’ve had the opportunity to work on this project that may someday impact how farmers harvest their crops.”