As producers seek to cut costs and labour sources potentially dwindle in the wake of Brexit, human labour in horticulture will increasingly be replaced by robotic systems.
Some experts predict the revenues generated by agricultural robots will grow by as much as 10 times within the next 10 years.
Soft-fruit and vegetable growers are particularly at risk from these challenges – but they are ones that robots have perhaps the greatest potential to address. Their produce must meet demanding specifications from buyers, such as supermarkets, while labour currently represents 40 to 60 per cent of their total costs.
To meet these challenges, the University of Plymouth’s Soft and Adaptive Robotics (SAR) lab, led by Dr Martin Stoelen, is developing soft robot arm technology for selective harvesting tasks in horticulture. The robot arm joints are able to vary their stiffness in real-time, softening to withstand an impact during fast ballistic phases of movement, and then stiffening to ensure accuracy during the approach and picking phase.
These platforms will have to be robust enough to survive mistakes. The sensory data from a farmer’s field is noisy, and picking requires fast movements near to hard obstacles, like wooden poles. It will be hard to achieve hundreds of hours between breakdowns in this environment, but a soft robot body could help, while also being safe for humans and the crop.
Dr Stoelen is currently pioneering research into autonomous and selective harvesting of raspberries and tomatoes, through the China Robot Harvest project. He is also exploring how this technology could be applied to cauliflower through the Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall (ABC) project, part of Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £10million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.
The latter project includes key agricultural expertise from Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller, and involves strategic partner Teagle Machinery Ltd, and partners Riviera Produce and CNC Design Ltd.
Most prototypes for harvesting robots have high initial investment costs and long payback periods. Few such robots have passed the prototype stage and are commercially available. By keeping robot costs down and operating them as a fleet, usage can be scaled to the needs of the farmer. In places such as Devon and Cornwall, this could help smaller farmers remain sustainable, while keeping robotic platforms small could also help minimise soil compaction.
Dr Stoelen has also formed Fieldwork Robotics Ltd (FWR), a University spin-out company aiming to commercialise this technology. The company has received approximately £80,000 of Proof of Concept funding from the University, as well as support from the University’s commercialisation partners, Frontier IP, and the company and lab currently employ one PhD student, five engineers and programmers, and two placement students.