Cambridge, Mass.-based Soft Robotics has designed a vision system, SuperPick, to increase the capabilities of robots that pack fresh produce items.

Traditionally, such systems have had limitations whether they use 2-D or 3-D cameras. Systems with 3-D cameras tend to be more expensive and process images more slowly, and systems with 2-D cameras generally have to be used with conveyor belts so that individual items can be clearly identified.

SuperPick — short for supervisory picking — aims to provide the depth perception and recognition of 3-D using 2-D hardware and human oversight.

“If you have two (cherry tomatoes in baggies) that are sitting right on top of each other, the human eye can very easily see which tomato is in which baggie and how you would pick it up, but a computer vision system can’t, and so we’ve actually introduced a system that has a human in the loop,” said Dan Harburg, director of business development for Soft Robotics. “A human worker that can be remote is actually interacting directly with a screen to help the robot in the circumstances where it can’t figure out what it’s looking at.”

Soft Robotics unveiled the system at Automate 2017, a robotics trade show held in early April in Chicago.

“A few of the big farms that did come by the booth, because we told them we were going to be unveiling this at the show ... so far the reception’s been pretty fantastic,” Harburg said. “We’re trying to launch pilot projects now with a couple different customers.”

The goal is to have a pilot operational at a produce packing plant by the end of the year, Harburg said.

With SuperPick, one worker could supervise three robots and could oversee larger groups as machine learning is implemented in coming years.

Oversight could happen remotely, enabling a higher quality of job because it wouldn’t be in a cold, wet packinghouse.

One of the key benefits of SuperPick will be the smaller footprint required for installation, Harburg said.

“The floor plan would be able to remain very similar to how people are processing items today, which is mostly picking out of bins and placing directly into boxes or something like that,” Harburg said. “It’ll operate very similar to how a human worker operates today in the line, so it won’t require them to really rethink the way that they plan their packing operations in the kind of way that you might if you implemented a conveyor tracking system.”

Soft Robotics is still determining what the time frame for return on investment will be for SuperPick, but the goal is less than two years.

Harburg said Soft Robotics, which offers tentacle-like grippers that specialize in handling delicate items, has seen increasing interest from produce companies. Salinas, Calif.-based Taylor Farms has been a customer of and an investor in Soft Robotics.

“We have some operations over in Europe as well who have been really interested in this, and producers in California and Washington state who are also very interested in looking at using these tools in their operations,” Harburg said.

Eventually, Soft Robotics wants to make its tools usable for the field as well as the packinghouse, but with so many additional variables in an outdoor environment, that development could take another three to five years, Harburg said.

In the meantime, Harburg expressed optimism about the value Soft Robotics can bring to packinghouse operations.

“The same problems that we’re seeing here in the U.S. are also being felt all over the globe, so I absolutely think that robotics is going to be an increasingly important part of the agriculture market moving forward,” Harburg said. “There’s been a bit of a gap in cost and in capability, and hopefully that’s where we can help to bridge that gap with this kind of technology.”