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Robotics to fill soft fruit labour gap

UK growers to trial new robot-based systems to combat labour shortages

UK growers are set to trial several new robot-based systems this season on farms producing strawberries, apples, blueberries, lettuce and broccoli. A UK agri-food consortium has been formed to address labour shortages by accelerating the use of robotics and automation (R&A) for picking soft fruit and vegetables. The aim is for approved technologies to be manufactured at scale and fully implemented for the 2021 season.

The effort is being co-ordinated by the NFU, University of Lincoln, Agri-EPI Centre, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), with the backing of more than 100 food producers.

Around 80,000 agricultural workers are needed annually in the UK to pick and pack these products. But due to COVID-19 restrictions, it is estimated that only 30% of migrant workers are expected to come to the UK this season, with uncertainty continuing in the future.

Prof Simon Pearson, Prof of Agri-Food Technology at University of Lincoln, said this could cause 'severe problems' for numerous market sectors, such as fruit and vegetable picking. “While approaches like ‘Pick for Britain’ seek to increase the availability of human labour, there is also an opportunity for the UK agri-food sector and technology providers to collaborate to accelerate the development and uptake of R&A technologies. We have some very good R&A experts in the UK who have been looking at solutions for some time. We want to get these to industry in a very short space of time.”

Ali Capper, chair of the NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board, told that the agri-food consortium was an 'excellent initiative' and one that was 'long overdue'. "Growers have an on-going challenge around the availability, cost of and access to seasonal labour, exacerbated by Brexit and now Covid-19," she said. "This is a global challenge with many countries around the world facing seasonal labour difficulties. I commend the consortium for their energy in trying to accelerate the use of robotics in the fruit and veg sectors and look forward to being part of the team that brings new robotic solutions forward to British growers and growers.”

The agri-consortium is focusing on five areas for action:

  • Driving collaboration across the robotic, engineering and farming communities.
  • Securing appropriate investment to develop the Proof of Concepts to complete new robots.
  • Enlisting industrial engineers from within and outside the agri-food sector to assist with Proof of Concept
  • Recruiting industrial designers and manufacturers to produce approved R&A technologies.
  • Testing new robots on volunteer farms.

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