A consortium of agri-food organisations and businesses aims to help UK fruit and vegetable growers overcome seasonal labour shortages by accelerating the development and deployment of practical robotic and automation solutions.
More than a hundred of the UK’s fresh food producers are backing the initiative, which will focus on labour-intensive picking and packing solutions.
Simon Pearson, Professor of Agri-Food Technology at the University of Lincoln said: “We have some very good robotic and automation 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.”
Growers heavily reliant on seasonal workers
Around 70,000 people are needed annually to pick and pack fresh produce in the UK, with growers heavily reliant on seasonal workers from overseas. The travel and workplace restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic have brought the fragility of this approach into sharp relief.
Text continues underneath image
Dogtooth Robotics, based in Cambridge, England, is among the British companies developing robotic and artificial intelligence solutions for picking and packing soft fruit.
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 and access to seasonal labour, exacerbated by Brexit and now COVID-19. I look forward to being part of the team that brings new robotic solutions forward to British farmers and growers.”
In addition to the NFU, the initiative is being co-ordinated by the University of Lincoln, the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI), the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), which has expertise in product and manufacturing development, and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN).
Develop proof of concepts for new robots
The consortium will focus on driving collaboration across the robotic, engineering and farming communities; securing investment and enlisting industrial engineers to develop proof of concepts for new robots; and to co-ordinate testing of new robots on volunteer farms.
Intelligent robots for soft fruit picking
British agtech start-up Dogtooth Technologies is already operating in the fruit and vegetable sector building intelligent robots for soft fruit picking. Its machines are said to be capable of autonomous navigation along table-top crop rows, locating and picking ripe fruit, grading picked berries, and placing them directly into punnets.
Text continues underneath image
On the march – the newly-formed consortium of agricultural and industrial organisations and businesses aims to accelerate deployment of robotics and automation in the UK soft fruit and vegetable sector.
Chief executive officer Duncan Robertson has suggested that the benefits of robotic harvesting go beyond solving labour shortages. For example, giving growers predictable harvesting capacity, consistent picking performance – throughout the working day and during lower temperatures at night – and data for precision crop management, can all contribute to optimised yields and quality, as well as the potential to reduce waste throughout the supply chain.