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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.

Soft fruit robotics

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

Agri-EPI supports ground-breaking project Hands Free Farm

Agri-EPI Centre is project managing the innovative Hands Free Farm project at Harper Adams University. Hands Free Farm is the follow-on to the famous Hands Free Hectare project started in 2016 by Harpers Adams and Precision Decisions with the aim to be the first in the world to grow, tend and harvest a crop without operators in the driving seats or agronomists on the ground. The automation farm project has been taken through two successful cropping cycles and won a number of awards, including the prestigious BBC Food and Farming Future Food Award.

Now, thanks to funding from Innovate UK, the project has evolved into Hands Free Farm, a three-year-long project, run by Harper Adams and Precision Decisions and the UK division of Australian precision agriculture specialist Farmscan AG.

The project has just got underway and is based at Harper Adams’ campus in Shropshire. Agri-EPI Centre is providing the team with project management support and development space at its Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, located on the university’s campus.

Les Hurdiss, Manager of Agri-EPI’s Midlands Hub, said: “Hands Free Farm is a fantastic, ground breaking project which is truly innovative in taking farming into a new era. We are very proud that the project will be developed in our Midlands Agri-Tech Innovation Hub. Robotics and automation are at the forefront of the current transformation of agriculture and Hands Free Farm is one of several projects in which Agri-EPI is involved which are advancing this exciting area.”

Jonathan Gill, Harper Adams Mechatronics Researcher said: “This time, we’re planning to grow three different combinable crops across 35 hectares.

“We’re moving past the feasibility study which the hectare provided us with, to now a vision of the future of farming.

“We want to prove the capability and ability of these systems in reducing the levels of soil compaction and precision application.”

Kit Franklin, Harper Adams Senior Agricultural Engineering Lecturer, said: “We want the farm to become a testbed for agricultural innovation. Once the farm’s established, we’ll be encouraging companies to come and test and evaluate their technologies.”

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Tag Archive for: automation

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