Dr. David Barrett (standing) is pictured with Florida grower Robert Dubrosky.

Dr. David Barrett (standing) is pictured with Florida grower Robert Dubrosky.

Dr. David Barrett, professor at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, envisions a future when unmanned tractors, autonomous sensors, and robotic harvesters will enable the specialty crop industry to compete in the rapidly changing economy.

He’ll share this vision during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in December when he presents the Batjer memorial address.

Barrett, director of the Olin Intelligent Vehicle Lab, will provide an update on the current state of agricultural robotics, with specific examples from his student research projects.

Olin College is one of the country’s top engineering colleges and Barrett is the advisor for its Senior Consulting Program for Engineering (SCOPE), which enables students to apply their talents to real-world engineering challenges during their senior year. A group of five students is working with Vision Robotics, a California company that is developing robotic harvesting systems for apples and citrus.

The students will work on designing and building a prototype of the fruit picking arm (known to engineers as an "end effector"). Their goal is to develop a device that is inexpensive to produce, can pick one fruit in less than a second, and will be durable enough to pick millions of fruit.

"The technical challenges on the fruit picking arm are steep," Barrett said in a e-mail message to the Good Fruit Grower. "Building good end effectors that can reliably pick an apple without bruising it will require a very elegant design, but this is what Olin engineers are good at."


Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which is co-funding the project with the California Citrus Research Board, said he met Barrett last April at a workshop entitled "Engineering Solutions for Specialty Crops" held in Washington, D.C. The tree fruit industry’s Technology Roadmap had identified the need for automation, sensors, and precision agriculture research, which is now being referred to as "engineering solutions."

Barrett said he had talented students ready to work on developing creative engineering solutions for agriculture.

Olin’s fastest-growing department is bioengineering, and it is developing a 50-acre test farm to support its bioengineering and renewable-energy programs. It also has partnerships with local farms to build robotic systems for community-supported agriculture, Barrett said.

"I could make a good argument that as bioengineering grows to be a dominant force in the American economy, the agricultural component of it will become a significant industry in its own right."

Barrett has more than 25 years of experience in the robotics industry and has built robots that walk, hop, swim, roll, and entertain. Before joining Olin College, he was vice president of engineering at the iRobot Corporation, which sells the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. He has also worked for the Walt Disney Imagineering Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

He received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (summa cum laude) from the University of –Lowell, master’s degrees in ocean engineering and mechanical engineering from MIT, and a doctorate in ocean engineering from MIT.