Raspberries harvested by robots are now on sale in British supermarkets.
Two robots developed by Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout company from the University of Plymouth, have harvested berries in polytunnels in a field near Odemira in southwest Portugal.
The robots, which cost £2 million to develop, are being used amid shortages of seasonal workers across Europe.
The UK government said in December, it would issue 30,000 six-month work visas this year for the entire horticulture industry, but the trade body British Summer Fruits wants an additional 10,000.
UK farmers have long grappled with a shortage of seasonal fruit pickers, which has been exacerbated by Brexit, but other countries are also struggling to recruit enough workers for the back-breaking work.
The Robots stand at 1.8 metres tall and are fitted with four 3D-printed plastic arms that simultaneously pick raspberries – among the hardest fruit to pick as they are softer than other berries and grow on tall bushes at varying heights.
Three-quarters of the raspberries picked at the Odemira farm by the robots end up in British supermarkets, with the rest going to retailers across Europe.
“Raspberries are very sensitive so we have had to develop technology that can apply enough pressure to release the fruit from the stem without damaging it,” Fieldwork’s chief executive Rui Andres said to The Guardian.
“At the same time, our sensors are now so advanced that they can tell if the fruit is ready to be harvested or not, meaning what can be sold is all that is picked.”
He told The Guardian the robots pick 1kg of fruit an hour, with the company working to ramp this up to more than 4kg an hour.
The firm aims to have a robot picking 25,000 raspberries a day, compared with 15,000 for a human working an eight-hour shift.
British Summer Fruits chair Nick Marston added: “While the British berry industry has made significant strides in recent years toward automation, tasks on farms are complex and highly variable.
“As such we are still a number of years away from seeing automation and robotics widely adopted as a means for harvest.”