Agricultural robots developed to replace lost Brexit workers

Agricultural robots are being developed by scientists at the University of Plymouth that could be used to replace European workers who leave once the UK exits the European Union.

The ABC (Automated Brassica harvest in Cornwall) project is developing the cutting-edge technology to help with the cauliflower harvest - and potentially other fieldwork operations.

“A lot of producers are very worried about where they will get their reasonably priced manual labour from – and rightly so,” said robotics lecturer Dr Martin Stoelen who leads the project (pictured).

“Manual harvesting also represents a large portion of their total costs, often it can be up to 50 per cent, so looking at addressing that, especially against a backdrop of Brexit, is very important.”

He is currently designing, building and testing a rig, under field conditions, that could dramatically lower the amount of human labour needed for harvesting.

It is hoped the technology could be brought to market within two to three years involving a business model that would see the machines being owned by contractors, with farmers buying in the service when required.

The robots are built with arms that have ‘variable stiffness’, joints that can be made soft or stiff, depending on the task.

Cameras and sensors in its ‘hands’ can make real-time 3D models of the crop by assessing the information it assimilates, allowing it to recognise which parts to collect and which to leave.

With such robots recording images and touch-data from all over a field in real time, they also bring the possibility of gathering information that could be used in a variety of ways, potentially extending their application to beyond harvest.

“These robots are going to be a massive big-data application,” Stoelen said. “Machines could even be ‘repurposed’ throughout the growing season, allowing the core technology to be rolled out to other operations - such as weeding or the application of pesticides.

“If the robot is reconfigurable, it could be relevant to other brassicas and indeed other crops. Ultimately, machines such as this will make life easier and simpler as a farmer. It’s also cool technology which might encourage more young people to choose a career in agriculture.

“This technology is evolving rapidly, costs are coming down and developments can happen fast which means it’s not too long before technology like this becomes a practical and commercially viable reality.

“On a global scale, it could bring massive efficiencies and improve the industry’s safety record as there would be fewer people working so closely with large, moving machinery. Agriculture has been under-estimated as a potential area for applying advance robotics, but now could be its time.”

David Simmons, managing director of Riviera Produce, which is a partner in the ABC project, said: “Harvesting costs can be up to 40 per cent of the costs of production of brassicas, and skilled labour to do the harvesting is getting increasingly difficult to obtain, especially with Brexit fast approaching.

“In a very competitive market place where our customers demand cheap food, the cost of harvesting is continually rising. Robotic harvesting has the potential to increase productivity and control the costs.”

In September researchers at the University of Illinois unveiled an agricultural robot that autonomously measures crop traits. 

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