In the quiet countryside, a revolution is unfolding. Robots, once sci-fi dreams, are now a common sight in the world of agriculture. Until recently, farming was slow to embrace automation because it was costly and impractical.
However, the farming sector has turned to technology to meet the rising food demand. The industry is undergoing rapid evolution worldwide as the agricultural robotics market is set to reach £26.82 billion by 2027.
The Cost of Labour
The agricultural industry is grappling with the problems of labour shortages, an ageing workforce, and a reluctance to take on tough farm work.
In the UK, there are 471,000 people working in agriculture. A big chunk of them, at least 58,000, are seasonal workers. Farmers rely on migrant labour to fill these roles. However, British growers have struggled with an ongoing shortage of seasonal fruit pickers, inflamed by Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
As labour costs rise, produce often goes unharvested and left to rot on the ground. Up to £22 million-worth of fruit and vegetables were wasted in the first half of 2022 because of workforce shortages, according to the National Farmers’ Union.
The Robo-Farming Solution
Enter robots, a modern solution powered by advanced technologies such as computer vision and machine learning. With them, the industry is no longer bound by the limitations and cost of human labour. They can weed, pick fruits, and handle other tasks with precision and tirelessness.
Your next raspberry snack might have been plucked from a bush by a 3D-printed plastic arm. Cambridge-based Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout company from the University of Plymouth, is transforming the soft fruit harvesting process.
Their AI-powered Alpha model is the world’s first autonomous raspberry harvesting robot that enables growers to work round the clock and maximise yields.
“We’re on a mission to increase productivity and reduce wastage for growers,” said David Fulton, Fieldwork’s chief executive.
Raspberry picking alone comprises more than 50% of the overall production expenses.
“The problem is the price of labour isn’t economically sustainable for growers. There’s just not enough humans to pick berries. That’s why there’s so much wastage on the crop.”
Fieldwork’s Alpha model boasts four picking arms – two at the front and two at the back. Each arm has its own camera that scans every single raspberry to ensure only the ripest berries are plucked.
Fulton said: “It’s like the brain to the body. The robot scans bushes at different angles using AI computer vision and then informs the arms if the berry is ripe for picking.”
From the Summer Berry Company’s farms in Portugal, these robot-picked soft fruits are delivered directly to the shelves of supermarkets across the UK.
Alpha can pick over 25,000 berries a day – 10,000 more than the average human can pick across an 8-hour shift. Moreover, growers are unable to distinguish between a human-picked fruit and a robot picked fruit.
Fieldwork’s innovative algorithms enable the robots to take on diverse tasks, including crop spraying and crop yield predictions to boost efficiency. Equipped with smart sensors and computer vision, field robots can gather real-time data about plant growth, providing valuable information for growers.
In the future, Fieldwork Robotics aims to extend its harvesting capabilities to a wider variety of crops.
Fulton said: “The modularity of the design means we don’t have to rebuild the entire robot from the bottom up. We just need to change one component. So instead of a cup for raspberries, there’d be a snipping tool for strawberries.”
Fulton also told TechRound that the company plans to expand its operations and explore opportunities in California, New Zealand, and Australia.
The Benefits of Automation
The industry’s shift towards precision farming isn’t just about efficiency, it’s also about sustainability. By tracking how different parts of a field respond to inputs like water and chemicals, farmers can reduce resource use and crop wastage.
Real-time data about soil health and weather conditions also help farmers make smart decisions about when and where to grow their crops.
But this isn’t just talk; it’s action. Last month, the UK government invested £12.5 million in projects aimed at advancing farming robotics and automation. This brings the total government funding for industry-led research and development in agriculture to £120 million since 2021.
The goal? To boost productivity, food security, and sustainable farming practices. Manufacturers, startups, and universities are all working toward agricultural automation. Events like Agritechnica 2023 in Germany will showcase a wide range of field robots designed for different crops and tasks that will advance the use of robotics in farming.
The Road Ahead
Amid growing concerns about the role of robots in the workforce, it’s important to note that they aren’t replacing human labour; they’re boosting efficiency and reliability. Technology is solving the sustainability challenges that farmers face today, increasing productivity and reducing the food wastage caused by human labour shortages.
Agricultural robots also come with financial and operational hurdles. Despite a gradual decrease in costs, the initial investment remains a substantial burden, particularly in an industry known for thin profit margins.
However, the future of farming isn’t just promising; it’s practical. Robots might not take over the field completely, but they’re here to lend a hand. As they become more affordable and efficient, they’re set to change farming for the better. In a world where both economic and environmental challenges loom large, technology and agriculture are working toward a greener, more bountiful future.
Written by Reem Hassan