The future of UK and international farming and food production has been boosted after Innovate UK announced today funding of £2.5 million for what is widely considered to be the world’s first robotic farm.
The “Robot Highways” project aims to address labour shortages, the need for global food production and reduce the environmental impact of the farming sector.
The successful consortium responsible for delivering ‘Robot Highways’ consists of Norway company Saga Robotics, global leaders in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) technology for the soft fruit sector, the Coventry-based Manufacturing Technology Centre Limited, University of Lincoln (Europe’s largest academic research centre on agri-robotics), University of Reading (knowledge exchange and economic evaluation specialists), Berry Gardens Growers, BT, and Clock House Farm Ltd (leader in the soft and stone fruit growing sector).
The consortium will create the largest known global demonstration of RAS technologies that fuse multiple application technologies across a single farming system.
With an aim to be delivered by 2025 across the UK, a fleet of robots will perform a multitude of on-farm functions as one operation, powered by renewable energy.
The project is key to industry sustainability by reducing sector reliance on seasonal labour, estimating a 40 per cent reduction in the labour required.
“Robot Highways” will also help help the sector become carbon zero . With an estimated 20 per cent reduction fruit waste, 90 per cent reduction in fungicide use, huge reduction in use of fossil fuel across all farm logistic operations and a 15 per cent increase in farm productivity.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies will be used, and crucial improvements will be made to telecommunications infrastructure in rural settings.
Victoria Prentis, the government’s Farming Minister, said: “It’s great to see investment in these outstanding ideas which will help us tackle the faming industry’s greatest challenges, from achieving net zero emissions to investing in sustainable alternative protein for animal feed. Farming has never before been at the centre of such exciting and forward-looking innovations.”
Professor Pål From, CEO of Saga Robotics, said: “We are convinced that the project will transform the soft fruit industry in the UK. This project will deploy robots in the agricultural sector at a scale never seen before, providing an innovative approach to all the major labour-intensive operations within the industry.” The University of Lincoln – through its Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology – will be leading the academic contribution to robotic development and coordinating the fleet control system.
Professor Andrew Hunter, the University of Lincoln’s Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, said: “Robot Highways is extremely timely as it will service a pressing national and international need and positions Lincolnshire, and the UK, at the leading edge of research innovations in this truly global industry.
“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain which generates a Gross Value Added (GVA) of £113 billion, with 3.9 million employees in a truly international industry.”
University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development will be evaluating the economic benefits of the new robotic agricultural technologies, and bringing growers, policy-makers and tech developers together to create suitable robotic tech for agricultural use.
Dr David Rose, Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading, said: “Autonomous robotic technologies could play a key role in the future of agricultural production, but only if they are trusted, reliable, and provide a tangible benefit for farmers.”
Matt Rayment, AgriFood Sector Lead for The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), said: “The MTC will be using their expertise in simulation, automation and process optimisation to ensure that the facility is working as efficiently as possible and that any automation used is in the right area and delivering value.
“On-farm packing is a critical function of the farm and currently one of the largest concentration of employed personnel on site. Following the Brexit vote, migrant labour cap and the Covid-19 pandemic, the MTC is acutely aware of the pressures that those reliant on manual operations in factories across the UK have been under. The MTC team will ensure that all of their skill and experience will be used to handle these challenges, such as using automation to enable social distancing, optimisation to reduce touch points and ultimately use this project to blue-print the solution across all manufacturing business in the UK.”