The Days Of Using Robots For Autonomous Harvesting Are Now Here

Learning Centre > The Days Of Using Robots For Autonomous Harvesting Are Now Here

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

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 systemsAs 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
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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 ten times within the next ten years.

Soft-fruit and vegetable growers are particularly at risk from these challenges – but they are ones that robots have perhaps the most significant potential to address. This is because their produce must meet demanding specifications from buyers, such as supermarkets. At the same time, 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 can vary their stiffness in real-time, softening to withstand an impact during fast ballistic movement phases 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 tricky obstacles, like wooden poles. It will be hard to achieve hundreds of hours between breakdowns in this environment. Still, a soft robot body could help while also 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 farmers could apply this technology 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 critical agricultural expertise from Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller. It 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. As a result, few such robots have passed the prototype stage and are commercially available. However, farmers can scale usage to their needs by keeping robot costs down and operating them as a fleet. 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 and support from the University’s commercialisation partners, Frontier IP. The company and lab currently employ one PhD student, five engineers and programmers and two placement students.

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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 ten times within the next ten years.

Soft-fruit and vegetable growers are particularly at risk from these challenges – but they are ones that robots have perhaps the most significant potential to address. This is because their produce must meet demanding specifications from buyers, such as supermarkets. At the same time, 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 can vary their stiffness in real-time, softening to withstand an impact during fast ballistic movement phases 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 tricky obstacles, like wooden poles. It will be hard to achieve hundreds of hours between breakdowns in this environment. Still, a soft robot body could help while also 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 farmers could apply this technology 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 critical agricultural expertise from Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller. It 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. As a result, few such robots have passed the prototype stage and are commercially available. However, farmers can scale usage to their needs by keeping robot costs down and operating them as a fleet. 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 and support from the University’s commercialisation partners, Frontier IP. The company and lab currently employ one PhD student, five engineers and programmers and two placement students.

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