Harvesting of hand-picked crops can be streamlined through new algorithms

Scientists have developed a new algorithm that could enable streamlining of harvesting of hand-picked crops thereby paving way for farmers to reap more benefits from their harvests.

The development is part of series of advances in precision agriculture that has been helping farmers over the course of last few years to make smarter decisions thereby producing a bigger yield.

Richard Sowers, a professor of industrial and enterprise systems engineering and mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a team of students have developed an algorithm that promises to give valuable information to farmers of crops picked by hand. The algorithm and their study have been published in Natural Resource Modeling.

“The strawberries that you put on your ice cream or cereal are for the moment picked by a crew of 10 or so workers, who mostly earn a wage per box collected,” Sowers noted. “For the consumer, it important that the strawberries are of good quality and look nice.”

According to Sowers, the strawberries that appear in clam shells that you find at the market or at your local grocery store are largely in the same condition as they were when they were picked from the field. They are loaded in a box, then a bigger box, then on a pallet and finally onto a truck. The process is then reversed at the market.

Rather than requiring a worker to enter data during harvest, which would slow down the process, Sowers’ team was able to pinpoint exact movement of each worker through GPS tracking on a smart phone each carried with them. Based on that data, the team developed an algorithm to predict the amount of completed boxes.

The data promises to ultimately lead to more precision techniques for harvesting. For instance, one set of quality control typically occurs at the edge of field and oftentimes there is a backlog of workers waiting in the que. More data will better help plan for best times to provide this control as well as schedule forklifts to pick up pallets and put them in a cooler. Time is of the essence as hot weather can have a dramatic effect to the quality of the produce.

Sowers further iterates the importance of this measurement to the industry because miscalculation of the workforce could completely eliminate profit.

The team successfully proved that these behaviors can be tracked and analyzed and is planning to return to California to refine it.