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.
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-to-day 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.