New robotics centre addresses ‘real challenges’ in agri-food: Labour shortages and weed control

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Thorvald robot in field ©University of Lincoln
Thorvald robot in field ©University of Lincoln

Related tags Robotics Lincolnshire Uk government

The world’s first agri-robotics Centre of Excellence will be built at the University of Lincoln in the UK, where researchers will develop ways to streamline and maximise agri-food processes ‘from farm-to-fork’.

The government-funded centre will house research headquarters, a ‘state-of-the-art’ digital infrastructure, as well as specialist robotics, automation, and AI (RAII) facilities.

According to the university, Lincoln Agri-Robotics will bring together scientists from two research groups – the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT) and the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (LCAS) – to “fuse robotics and artificial intelligence expertise” ​with that from agriculture, food manufacturing, engineering, life sciences and social sciences.

The end goal, according to Lincoln, is to streamline and maximise agri-food processes “from farm-to-fork”​, with particular focus on fruit harvesting, and pest and disease control.

Addressing the UK labour shortage

Agri-robotics has the potential to improve agricultural productivity and environmental stability with reduced human intervention, LIAT's senior project manager, David May, told FoodNavigator.

Labour shortages in the horticultural industry, and particularly in the soft fruit sector, have made headlines in the UK of late. With fewer central and eastern European fruit pickers working on British farms, farmers are facing a “real challenge”, ​said May.

“Horticulture employs a very significant number of people to carry out tasks such as harvesting. In the soft fruit sector, tens of thousands of people are engaged in fruit picking alone.

“The availability of labour has become significantly more challenging over the last few years due to economic and political factors,” ​he explained. “Therefore a lot of labour doesn’t necessarily want to come to the UK [and] there is a bigger gap between the availability of labour and what the industry needs.” 

Agri-robotics present an opportunity for industry to address staff shortages, May argued. “One of the key drivers [behind further developing agri-robotics] is to find replacements for that labour.”

Thorvald at Riseholme (University of Lincoln)
Thorvald robot at Riseholme ©University of Lincoln

Chemical-free pest and disease control

Agri-robotics can also play a vital role in pest, disease, and weed control – enabling farmers to swap out chemicals in favour of more sustainable processes.

And according to May, consumer awareness of pesticide use is driving this change in the sector.

“People are looking for alternative processing systems,” ​he explained. “Particularly if you look at weed control in the vegetable sector – where there is a lot of interest in mechanical weed control.”

However, achieving comparable results with manual systems is a challenge, he continued. “In order to get the levels of efficacy with a machine that you would get with chemicals requires a lot more precision.”

Precision agriculture – which May said is exemplified by the weed control sector – is another driving developments in the agri-robotic sector. “The potential to use machines over chemicals is of real interest. Being able to pinpoint accurately where a weed is, and to intervene, is really important,” ​he told this publication.

UK backs 'fourth industrial age'

Lincoln Agri-Robotics has been funded by a £6.4m (€7.14m) grant from the UK government’s Expanding Excellence in England (E3) Fund through Research England. The fund is dedicated to the expansion of research units and departments in universities across England.

“Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over,” ​said Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore of the grant. “This programme led by the University of Lincoln will give the UK another world first in Lincoln’s centre for research into farming robotics.”

For Lincoln’s May, the government’s support underscores a broader industrial strategy. “This is about taking UK food and agriculture into the fourth industrial age,” ​he told us. “This is about making sure we have a worldwide competitive industry.

“We are fantastic at innovation and science in agri-food, and this is about helping us to once again lead the world in agricultural and food developments.”

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