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Alexander Flasch: Powering agriculture through robotics

Alexander Flasch

Alexander Flasch

Harvesting farm produce can be tedious and strenuous on laborers. This tough job can now be done by an automated system; using a gripper attached to a robotic arm. This research carried out by WVU engineering student Alexander Flasch focused on the design and development of a gripper for produce growing on trees. The robotic gripper was tested on its capability to grip varying diameters of fruits and vegetables, so that it can eliminate human labor and making harvesting automated.

Story by Nathaniel Godwin

Q: What was your research about?

A: My research focused on an attachment that was put onto a robotic arm called the UR3e arm. This attachment will go up and grab fruits such as apples, avocados and a number of tree-growing produce. It would pick them without damaging the actual fruits and vegetables. The goal was to implement this in an agricultural sense but we found that overall it could be used in manufacturing, industrial and even commercial use such as in grocery stores, stacking cans and putting produce on shelves, etc. The goal also was to bring society to the forefront of robotics without damaging careers. One thing we found out was that this will provide entry-level jobs to get hands-on with the robotic arm or robotics in general as maintenance, manufacturing and how to use robotics arm in agriculture and other industries.

The research itself focused on the varieties that robotic arm could pick, within agriculture - it could pick a diameter of 50mm – 100mm. It was tested across multiple fruits and vegetables, and we saw that there are blueberries and grapes, which are kind of bush-growing but also fits into the category of a tree. Within this range, we have a fair range of limes, avocados, apples, pears. It can work through inclement weather, and through night or day.

Q: What problem motivated you to embark on this project?

A: The main problem we focused on was harvesting produce. It is strenuous on the human body, and it can cause issues, especially with labor. Today, we have a high demand for food in the agricultural market and this demand needs to be met by the same willing labor (supply). Humans cannot meet some of the demands and it is hard because of our physical human constraints. So we looked into creating an outlet for this demand, using robotics as a solution - something that does not age, nor need rest, nor need food, which is the robotic arm in this case.

Q: What role did your research supervisor play in this project?

A: My supervisor, Dr. Guilherme A. S. Pereira played a huge role in how this design was developed. I went to him after one of his classes, and asked him about research. He introduced me into the Research Apprenticeship Program. Not only has he been a great help in the actual design process and the implementation, but he has also been a great mentor. I had no robotic experience going into this, but I was very interested and fascinated. This was the field I wanted to go in to. Having him, he showed me how to become a well-rounded engineer. He did not only focus on the design aspect only, but he also focused on the actual coding, implementation, hardware, as well as software. So he gave me a full scope of what a real engineer looks like, today, as well as being a researcher. He would help look at my design and give me pointers, but he will never direct me to do something specifically. He let my creativity flow in this project while also directing me to the answer that would help find the most efficient design.

Q: How would you describe your time in the Research Apprenticeship Program?

A: The program helps students that have no experience in research or that want to take that next step in their career to experience something that is very unique to the college experience. I will say that a lot of friends that I have in a lot of colleges do not get this opportunity and I am very thankful that WVU has given me this opportunity. The RAP program is structured very well. The class really does help you going into your research, helping you understand where a professor is coming from, in a less technical aspect and then the professor helps you with the actual research and the technical aspects. This comes along with giving you great mentorship to go out and understand where other people in the workforce come from, when going to apply for a job or internship.

Q: How do you spend your free time?

A: In my spare time, I am at the WVU Innovation Hub. I would like to also mention that they also helped with the design of my project as well. In my free time, I try to do personal projects, which includes working on 3-D printing. Also, I love going to the WVU football and basketball games. I am a huge WVU sports fan and of Pittsburgh sports.

Q: What is your favorite pizza topping?

A: My favorite pizza topping is pepperoni. I am very classic.


Contact: Paige Nesbit

Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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