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Department of Engineering

Meet Dr Fumiya Iida

Meet Dr Fumiya Iida

Initial field test of vegetable harvesting robots gets underway.

Initiative Coordinator at Cambridge Global Food Security, Jacqueline Garget, interviews initiative member Dr Fumiya Iida about his achievements.

Scientists and engineers tend to think in a complicated way, but that’s the enemy if you really want to make an impact. It doesn’t matter what field you work in, the real-world impact comes from the simplest ideas.

Dr Fumiya Iida

Dr Iida, Lecturer in Mechatronics, is fascinated by robots. As head of the University of Cambridge’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory in the Department of Engineering, he takes nature as his inspiration in developing new machines that are effective in unconventional environments.

Dr Iida’s work requires collaboration with other experts across materials and life sciences, as well as communication with end-users to ensure his robots address real-world problems. He recently received a Royal Society Translation Award to investigate the potential to commercialise his latest creation: a robot capable of working on a farm.  

What’s your research about?

I’m interested in making soft robots. Conventional robots are all built based on the assumption that everything has to be rigid – rigid materials are easy to handle, rigid machines are easy to manufacture and it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen when you do things with them. But they can only be used in factories where the environment is controlled.

There are many soft materials available to us, not only things like rubber and sponge, but new advanced functional materials. We can use an electrically conductive soft material to make soft sensors and soft electrical circuits, or robots that are sensitive to light, chemicals, and other stimuli. As soon as you have a soft robot you can deal with uncertain tasks in unstructured environments, like fields and forests.

Dr Fumiya Iida

How does this relate to Global Food Security?

If you go to a farm you’ll find a range of problems that conventional robots can’t solve. All these things are my targets. Crops are unpredictable because each individual plant is slightly different and you can’t plan for these differences ahead of time. Soft robots have many agricultural applications: harvesting crops, inspection or quality control, wrapping vegetables and even making bouquets of flowers.

I’m collaborating with G’s Growers, an independent Producer Organisation based in Ely, Cambridgeshire, to develop soft robots that can harvest vegetables including lettuce, broccoli, celery and tomatoes. These things are currently only done by manual workers because they’re very difficult to automate. Automation is necessary if you want to scale up agricultural processes to feed a growing population.

Development of new technology doesn’t just happen in the lab. It’s really important that we talk to farmers and find out what problems they’re facing. It can be a challenge to introduce new technologies to people, particularly in developing countries, but by sharing the problems and bringing together our different perspectives, things are happening.

What about the human workers who’ll lose their jobs to robots?

We are all creative – that’s the great weakness and the great strength of humans. We’ll never solve all the problems in the Universe, so there’s always something to do. The problems are the places where the jobs will be created.

Where do you have your best ideas?

We need the technological innovations, but also we need to understand how these technologies are related to the problems that end users have. So I get great ideas in the lab and by talking with other researchers and students and also by talking to the end users.

What’s the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

That we should work on the simplest problem and find the simplest solution that works. Scientists and engineers tend to think in a complicated way, but that’s the enemy if you really want to make an impact. It doesn’t matter what field you work in, the real-world impact comes from the simplest ideas.

What’s your favourite research tool?

My own hands. They’re the starting point of creativity and the driving force of innovation. Artificial Intelligence is a great tool but it will never be as creative as our hands. I always try to motivate students not to sit at their desks the whole time, but to go and get their hands dirty!

Who or what inspires you?

Nature. Whether animals or plants, somehow nature – with all its complex phenomena – just works. If you look at conventional machines they’re all made of rigid materials like metal and plastic, but if you look at animals and plants, they’re up to 90% soft. Why? What’s the benefit of being soft? I’ve been working in this field for the last 20 years, but I never get bored. There’s something new to discover from nature every day.

How will you use your award from the Royal Society?

I’m planning to use this funding to bring the robot platforms out of the lab and test their feasibility on the farms we collaborate with.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a good collaborator and a good mentor. It’s important to me that I can be helpful and influential to younger people, whether in robotics or in business.

This article first appeared on the Cambridge Global Food Security website.

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