Blueberry production is a billion-dollar business in the U.S. Although the industry grows every year, a key stumbling block to mass production is labor. More than 70% of fresh-market highbush blueberries are harvested by hand and the issue of labor availability continues to become a greater concern.
A research team from the University of Georgia, as USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Michigan State University, University of Florida, Penn State University, Washington State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, and Mississippi State University hopes to solve the challenge of increasing production while making mechanization gentler and affordable.
“During harvest, postharvest handling, and transportation, blueberries will invariably interact with various machine parts or contacting surfaces. These interactions will create bruises and reduce fruit quality,” Changying “Charlie” Li, associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia says. “In the past, these potential impacts created by mechanical handling could only be evaluated by assessing the quality of blueberries after the handling process due to the lack of effective sensing tools.”
Lialong with Fumiomi Takeda, lead scientist at the USDA-ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, WV, worked to develop the Berry Impact Recording Device (BIRD) as part of a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) project. Li and Takeda’s research also had support from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council to improve upon the first-generation BIRD Sensor.
A Sensor The Size Of A Berry
This BIRD device is a wireless data-logging sensor that is a similar shape, size, and weight of a blueberry. This sensor rides along with blueberries through the handling process from mechanical harvesting, packing, and transportation to measure the impact.
Li says the concept of impact sensors is not new. However, none are small enough to use to measure the impact of harvest on small fruit. This is precisely why the BIRD sensor was developed. The sensor measures the impacts the blueberries experience through an accelerometer and microprocessor in the device. The second-generation BIRD sensor has a diameter of 21 millimeters and weighs 6.9 grams.
“Previous studies showed that bruise damage developed on as much as 78% of mechanically harvested highbush blueberries, making the fruit unacceptable for long-term cold storage and fresh consumption,” Li says.
Damaged fruit also opens the skin to postharvest decay and organisms, Takeda says.
“Our research effort is directed at relating these impacts to fruit firmness and bruising resulting from a fruit being hit by vibrating rods when it lands on a hard surface,” Takeda says. “Eventually the BIRD technology can be used to predict the degree of quality loss from the impact values it gathers. This means it offers a technology to measure internal bruise damage rapidly and without destroying the fruit.”