The future of UK and international farming and food production has been boosted after Innovate UK announced today funding of £2.5m for what is widely considered to be the world’s first robotic farm.
‘Robot Highways’ is a project which aims to ensure industry sustainability by addressing 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 Saga Robotics, global leaders in robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) technology for the soft fruit sector, the University of Lincoln (Europe’s largest academic research centre on agri-robotics), University of Reading (knowledge exchange and economic evaluation specialists), Manufacturing Technology Centre Limited, Berry Gardens Growers, BT, and Clock House Farm Ltd (leader in the soft and stone fruit growing sector).
The consortium has delivered a vision for the future of soft fruit farming, and 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% reduction in the labour required.
‘Robot Highways’ will also provide solutions for moving the sector towards a carbon zero future. With an estimated 20% reduction fruit waste, 90% reduction in fungicide use, huge reduction in use of fossil fuel across all farm logistic operations and a 15% increase in farm productivity.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies will be harnessed, and crucial improvements will be made to telecommunications infrastructure in rural settings.
Victoria Prentis, 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 extremely proud and excited to have been awarded this project and 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: “We are delighted that the University as part of the consortium has been awarded funding by Innovate UK deliver this innovative and essential work. It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, as producers adapt to meet significantly increased global demand, but there is still so much research and development to be done. 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 £113bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.”
Prof Simon Pearson, Director of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, said: “This is a significant step forward in taking robotics onwards towards the market. I’m delighted that opportunities are being realised for the sector and agri-food robotics specifically.”
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.
“We will be analysing the economic impact of robotic farming technology to assess what benefits are possible. We will also be engaging with grower communities, policy-makers and tech developers to ensure that any solutions that are developed are co-designed and will be suitable for use out in the field.”
Prof John Davies, Head of IoT Research at BT, said: “We’re excited to be part of this ground-breaking project that has the potential to significantly improve productivity and efficiency at UK farms, while also reducing the carbon footprint. Agriculture has the potential to be one of the sectors where a new generation of robotic cyber-physical systems can transform industry. BT is ready to play its part, in terms of both network provision and delivery of the all-important data platforms needed to support this transformation.”
Matt Rayment, AgriFood Sector Lead for The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), said: “MTC is part of the Government backed High Value Manufacturing Catapult and is proud to be part of this ground-breaking project. Focussing on the pack house, 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.”
Oli Pascall, Managing Director, Clock House Farm Ltd, said: “Clock House Farm Ltd is very excited to be part of the consortium and the demonstration farm for the project, which will help us with our ambition to be an innovative leader in our sector.”
Richard Harnden, Director of Research, Berry Gardens Growers Ltd, said: “We are delighted that UKRI and Innovate UK have awarded funding to this exciting project, which will bring together for the first time many new technologies developed during many previous smaller scale research projects. We have been partnered with the University of Lincoln and Saga Robotics Ltd for the past six years and this project will demonstrate at scale our jointly developed new capabilities in robotics for the UK soft fruit industry.”