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Farm robotics impact on labour shortage being 'over-estimated'

Gaps between developing market-ready technology and on-farm use mean farm businesses could have to wait a long time until they see the benefits.

 

Colin Ley reports from F&A Next, a farm innovation event run by Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in The Netherlands. 

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Farm robotics impact on labour shortage being 'over-estimated'

The capacity of farm robotics to deliver quick-fix solutions to agriculture’s labour concerns is vastly over-estimated according to researchers in the Netherlands.

 

Dutch robotics scientist, Rick van de Zedde, told delegates at F&A Next: “Industry expectations for farm robotics are definitely too high at present.

 

“There is a tendency for users to think they can buy a robot, push the start button and leave the machine to work away on its own. That is not going to be true, certainly not in agriculture.”

 

One of 65 robotics researchers working on farm sector issues at WUR, Mr van de Zedde said he believed robots will help to produce food more-efficiently in the future by exploiting new, robust crops in a more-sustainable way.


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However, he urged delegates not to expect too much too soon, adding that applying robotics to farming was more challenging for developers than in other industries.

 

This was due to agriculture’s broad range of products and use of different varieties, factors which were creating a ‘huge gap’ between research developments and on-farm use.

 

“You can have a prototype working well on a specific set-up for a certain point in the season,” added Mr van de Zedde.

 

“As soon as it is required to work on a wider basis, being exposed to many different varieties, it can quickly become clear that the set-up is too variety specific and it is not ready for field application.”

Developer Richard van der Linde, chief executive of FTNON Lacque Food Robotics, Delft, agreed, having spent the last few years advancing a robot which processed iceberg lettuce from prototype machine to market-ready unit.

 

He said: “We are happy with where we are now, but we were all but bankrupt on two separate occasions on our way to this point.

 

“It is also frustrating that while we now have a robot that deals well with cabbages and lettuces, it still needs further work to cope with other crops, such as Brussels sprouts.”

 

Farming’s vision of robots taking over soft fruit and vegetable harvesting also remains some way off, warned ag-tech investment specialist, Dan Harburg, of Anterra Capital, Amsterdam.

“Advances made in other industries cannot be immediately brought into the agricultural world,” he said, adding crop harvesting robots would need be able to withstand dust, mud and imprecise working locations.

 

“These sorts of challenges did not exist for those developing robotics for the automotive industry, but they do in agriculture.”

 

Instead of aiming to go the whole way in replacing humans at harvest-time, he encouraged robot developers to focus first on minimising walking times for strawberry pickers or mushroom harvesters, potentially replacing 20 per cent of labour requirements in the process.

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