How ro­bot­ics may be fu­ture of har­vest­ing

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WITH the cur­rent is­sues sur­round­ing sea­sonal labour and the im­pact of Brexit on labour-de­pen­dent farm­ing, re­search into the fu­ture of ro­bot­ics in agri­cul­ture could not be more aptly timed, writes the NFU’s Ver­ity Richards.

Ear­lier this month, at a se­cure NIAB re­search fa­cil­ity, the NFU joined aca­demics, in­dus­try spe­cial­ists and farm­ers to dis­cuss the use of ro­bot­ics in har­vest­ing.

Hosted by Agri-Tech East, the meet­ing fo­cussed on the cur­rent abil­ity of ro­bots to har­vest crops as well as en­vi­sion­ing how, with ad­di­tional re­search and fund­ing, the fu­ture of ro­bot­ics in farm­ing might look.

Aca­demics from the Uni­ver­si­ties of Cam­bridge, Lin­coln and Harper Adams dis­cussed cur­rent re­search projects; from vi­sion-as­sisted ro­botic broc­coli har­vest­ing to the use of soft ro­bot­ics, ro­bots not con­strained by shape or size in agri­cul­ture.

Jonathan Gill, a teacher of mecha­tron­ics at Harper Adams, re­vealed his cur­rent project: to till, sew, cul­ti­vate and har­vest a crop with­out hu­man in­ter­ac­tion in the field.

A big ask con­sid­er­ing the plethora of ob­sta­cles still fac­ing the in­dus­try, from re­motely op­er­at­ing a ro­bot from one end of a field to the other, to pre­ci­sion weeding and ac­cu­rate har­vest­ing.

The long-term vi­sion is four or five re­motely op­er­ated trac­tors work­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously in a field, all con­trolled by one farmer.

From the dis­cus­sion it was clear that there is a dif­fer­ence in ap­proach be­tween ex­perts; from those who be­lieve the en­vi­ron­ment should be shaped around the ro­bot i.e. ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fy­ing the stem of a broc­coli to en­able a ro­bot to cut with ease, to those who be­lieve ro­bots should be adapted to suit the en­vi­ron­ment.

Along­side this is the in­tro­duc­tion of soft ro­bot­ics into agri­cul­ture.

Dr An­dre Rosendo (a re­search as­so­ciate at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge), spoke on the move from the rigid and heavy ro­botic tech­nol­ogy seen in agri­cul­ture thus far, to a more flex­i­ble style of ro­bot­ics.

One which com­bines the del­i­cacy needed to pluck a straw­berry from its stalk with the re­silience and strength needed to work in a farm­ing en­vi­ron­ment and carry large loads of crops.

Whilst the de­bate was var­ied and in­ter­est­ing there is an ob­vi­ous need for di­a­logue and knowl­edge ex­change, par­tic­u­larly be­tween re­searchers and farm­ers.

There is lit­tle point in pur­su­ing an idea with­out think­ing of the day-to­day prac­ti­cal­i­ties which need to be faced once a ro­bot en­ters a field.

Dis­cus­sion in­di­cated that the fu­ture is in in­ter­op­er­abil­ity, in on-farm re­search and in con­tin­ued con­ver­sa­tion with the farmer on the ground.

In­ter­ac­tion and two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion is vi­tal if ro­bot­ics is re­ally to be­come the so­lu­tion to labour short­age and en­able more ef­fi­cient and cost-ef­fec­tive har­vest­ing.

A com­puter gen­er­ated im­age about what the fu­ture of robotics in farm­ing might look like

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