Vintage Plotter Turned Fruit Spectrometer


Fruit can be a tricky thing: if you buy it ripe you’ll be racing against time to eat the pieces before they turn into a mushy mess, but if you buy the ones which are a bit before their prime it’s not always easy to tell when they’re ready to eat. Do you smell it? Squeeze it? Toss it on the counter to see if it bounces? In the end you forget about them and they go bad anyway. That’s why here at Hackaday we sustain ourselves with only collected rainwater and thermo-stabilized military rations.

But thankfully Cornell students [Christina Chang], [Michelle Feng], and [Russell Silva] have come up with a delightfully high-tech solution to this decidedly low-tech problem. Rather than rely on human senses to determine when a counter full of fruit has ripened, they propose an automated system which uses a motorized spectrometer to scan an arrangement of fruit. The device measures the fruit’s reflectance at 678 nm, which can be used to determine the surface concentration of chlorophyll-a; a prime indicator of ripeness.

If that sounds a bit above your pay grade, don’t worry. The students were able to build a functional prototype using a 1980’s era plotter, a Raspberry Pi, and a low-cost AS7263 NIR spectral sensor from SparkFun which just so happens to have a peak responsivity of 680 nm. The scanning is performed by a PIC32MX250F128B development board with an attached TFT LCD display so the results can be easily viewed. The Raspberry Pi is used in conjunction with a Adafruit PCA9685 I2C PWM driver to control the plotter’s stepper motors. The scanning and motor control could be done with the PIC32 alone, but to save time the students decided to use the Raspberry Pi to command the PCA9685 as that was what the documentation and software was readily available for.

To perform a scan, the stepper motors home the AS7263 sensor module, and then passes it under the fruit which is laying on a clear acrylic sheet. Moving the length of the acrylic sheet, the sensor is able to scan not only multiple pieces of fruit but the entirety of each piece; allowing it to determine for example if a section of a banana has already turned. The relative ripeness of the fruit is displayed to the user on the LCD display as a heatmap: the brighter the color the more ripe it is.

At the end of their paper, [Christina], [Michelle], and [Russell] note that while the scanner worked well there’s still room for improvement. A more scientific approach to calculating how ripe each fruit is would make the device more accurate and take out the guess work on the part of the end user, and issues with darker colored fruit could potentially be resolved with additional calibration.

While a spectrometer might sound like the kind of equipment that only exists in multi-million dollar research laboratories, we occasionally see projects like this which make the technology much more accessible. This year we saw a compact spectrometer in the Hackaday Prize, and going a bit farther back in time we even featured a roundup of some of the most impressive spectrometer builds on Hackaday.io.

[Thanks to Bruce Land for the tip.]



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