NASA considers farming a matter of survival for future long-term space missions. But who will care for crops when astronauts are busy carrying out key mission tasks?
Peter Ling and a team of scientists are developing a robotic tomato harvester for the J.F. Kennedy Space Center.
The harvester has a sensing unit, or robotic eye, to scan the tomato plant and determines the number and position of red fruits. With this information, its four-finger prosthetic picks up the fruit.
Image-processing algorithms determine sizes and locations of mature tomatoes, even those partially hidden behind leaves or branches.
But the services of the space farmer could also come handy here on Earth.
“We are looking into developing some kind of automation to harvest not only tomatoes, but also apples and oranges,” Ling explained. “This technology can be advantageous especially for the fresh market, where you need to pick fruit one by one to get a mature, high-quality product.”
Ling is not the only one working on that turf: the Madrid university in Spain has developed the prototype of a robot that will work in the field to collect strawberries.