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Could robots solve the problem of labour shortages?

A trial of robotic strawberry pickers is underway at farm sites across the UK in a move suppliers hope will resolve shortages of harvest workers. 
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Researchers have spent the past 18 months developing a robot which can reach out and pick a strawberry without damaging it.

 

The next stage, taking place over the current season from May until October, will trial the use of autonomous vehicles and robotic hands which can identify ripe berries and pick them at a fast enough speed to make them commercially viable.

 

The trial comes at a critical time for horticulture production in the UK.

 

A survey of 289 NFU horticulture members earlier this year found that almost one-third experienced problems sourcing an adequate supply of seasonal workers in 2015.

 

The NFU has warned production in the UK is likely to be exported to the EU and northern Africa unless the sector can address shortages of migrant workers.

 

This week hospitality consultants Beacon warned the national living wage, introduced in April, could wipe out about 60 per cent of growers’ profits in the coming year.

 

 

The robot trial is being led by one of the UK’s biggest soft-fruits suppliers, Berryworld, in partnership with Harper Adams University, Interface Devices Limited, the National Physical Laboratory and the Shadow Robot Company.

 

Although robots which can pick soft fruits have been demonstrated before in laboratories, the researchers behind this trail said they planned to produce robots which were both affordable and practical alternatives to humans.

 

“This is the first time anyone in the UK has tried to do what we’re doing,” said Rich Walker, managing director at the Shadow Robot Company. “

 

We’re trying to do selective harvesting rather than coming and picking everything, and we start from the premise that it has to be both affordable and useable on farms.”

 

Mr Walker said recent changes in strawberry production in the UK made it ideally suited to robotic technology, with plants grown at waist height on raised beds and the fruit hanging down.

 

The use of greenhouses and polytunnels and dry and flat flooring also makes the site accessible for robotic vehicles.

 

If the trial is successful Walker says soft fruit growers could share robots on a lease basis to save on costs.

 

Robots in farming

A lettuce farm run entirely by robots launched in Japan earlier this year, with ongoing trials for robots that can detect and pick ripe vine tomatoes.

 

In the UK, researchers at the University of Lincoln are working on a robots that can harvest broccoli.

 

Dairy farmers are already using robotic milking machines, but further afield in South America, drones are used to keep a check on widely dispersed livestock, while in Japan smaller models are used to spray pesticides.

 


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