Student's robotic lettuce harvester bags agri-tech startup prize

An automated lettuce harvester has won the student category of the Agri-Tech East GROW competition on 22 June.

Softharvest's Armand de Durfort - image: Agri-Tech East
Softharvest's Armand de Durfort - image: Agri-Tech East

The venture started as a research project at the bio-inspired robotics laboratory of the University of Cambridge in collaboration with G's Growers, which harvests 3 million heads of iceberg a week.

It uses visual recognition to control the robotic picker and prevent damage to the delicate plants, potentially replacing a job usually done by hand. Its developers say the system would pay for itself in three years.

Softharvest founder Armand de Durfort is a graduate from Ecole Polytechnique near Paris and has just completed his MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacture and Management at the University of Cambridge.

Winner in the non-student category was Pinpoint Phenomics, which has developed a system that allows the producer to quickly measure the internal signals a plant makes in response to the environment, indicating lack of water, shortage of nutrients or attack from pests, so allowing these stresses to be addressed.

The competition is intended to help new agri-businesses grow into fully-fledged companies that can benefit the east of England's food and farming industry.

Belinda Clarke, director of industry body Agri-Tech East, said: "The strength of a cluster is in creating connections with mutual benefit and already some of the large businesses in our ecosystem are considering commercial relationships with some of the GROW finalists."

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