Farming industry pushes robotics to fill soft fruit labour gap

A large UK agri-food consortium has been formed to address agricultural labour shortages by accelerating the use of robotics and automation (R&A) for picking and packing soft fruit and vegetables.

Strawberry picking robot by Dogtooth Technologies

Strawberry picking robot by Dogtooth Technologies

The consortium plans to trial several new robot-based systems this growing season, on farms producing strawberries, apples, blueberries, lettuce and broccoli. The aim is for approved technologies to be manufactured at scale and fully implemented for the 2021 season.

The effort is being co-ordinated by the University of Lincoln, the National Farmers Union (NFU), Agri-EPI Centre, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), with the backing of more than 100 of the UK’s fresh food producers.

Prof. Simon Pearson, Professor of Agri-Food Technology at the University of Lincoln said:

“The uncertainties created by COVID-19 and Brexit are impacting the supply of seasonal labour into the UK fresh produce sector. Around 70,000 workers are needed annually to pick and pack these products. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is estimated that only 30% of migrant agricultural workers are expected to come to the UK this season, with uncertainty continuing in the future. This could cause severe problems for numerous market sectors, such as fruit and vegetable picking, which ultimately, will reduce the availability of food for the UK at a time when it is needed most.

Robotic harvesting by Dogtooth Technologies Ltd

Robotic harvesting by Dogtooth Technologies Ltd

“While approaches like ‘Pick for Britain’ seek to increase the availability of human labour, there is also an opportunity for the UK agri-food sector and technology providers to collaborate to accelerate the development and uptake of R&A technologies. We have some very good R&A experts in the UK who have been looking at solutions for some time. We want to get these to industry in a very short space of time.”

Ali Capper, Chair of the NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board said: “This is an excellent initiative and one that is long overdue. British fruit and veg growers have an on-going challenge around the availability, cost of and access to seasonal labour, exacerbated by Brexit and now COVID-19. This is a global challenge with many countries around the world facing seasonal labour difficulties. I commend the consortium for their energy in trying to accelerate the use of robotics in the fruit and veg sectors and look forward to being part of the team that brings new robotic solutions forward to British farmers and growers.”

Agri-EPI Centre Chief Executive Dave Ross said:

“The key to this kind of ambitious approach is collaboration and it is really exciting to see the widespread support for the consortium. Agri-EPI is pleased to offer any of its facilities and resources as it takes shape.”

David Telford, Head of Agri-food, KTN said:

“At the start of the pandemic, KTN brought together a cross-sector team of partners to look at the threats to various sectors, including agri-food.  This resulting consortium is doing crucial work in aiming to increase sector resilience and boost the UK’s agri-robotics innovation pipeline and SME capacity.”

The consortium is focusing on five areas for action:

  1. Driving collaboration across the robotic, engineering and farming communities.
  2. Securing appropriate investment to develop the Proof of Concepts to complete new robots.
  3. Enlisting industrial engineers from within and outside the agri-food sector to assist with Proof of Concept
  4. Testing new robots on volunteer farms.
  5. Recruiting industrial designers and manufacturers to produce approved R&A technologies.

Businesses which can support any of the above areas can contact Agri-EPI Centre at robotics@agri-epicentre.com