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PHOTOS: Robots that could replace migrant workers post-Brexit

PHOTOS: Robots that could replace migrant workers post-Brexit

Published by the Pirate FM News Team at 5:36pm 16th March 2018.

Growers worried about workforce shortages on Cornish farms in the wake of Brexit could soon have an alternative solution - robots.

Scientists from Plymouth University are pioneering technology that could transform the future of produce growing, dubbing it the 'robot harvest'.

It is part of a three-year EU-part funded scheme called the Agri-tech Cornwall Project (ACP), which will see £10m pumped into research, development and innovation into agricultural technologies.

Those behind it hope it will help to boost the agricultural, horticultural and food sectors in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

And, already, robots are being trialled to help Cornish farms with the cauliflower harvest.


The work is being led by robotics lecturer Dr Martin Stoelen, with key agricultural expertise provided by Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller.

They are also working alongside strategic partner Teagle Machinery Ltd, and partners Riviera Produce and CNC Design Ltd.

Dr Stoelen said: "A lot of producers are very worried about where they will get their reasonably priced manual labour from - and rightly so.

"Manual harvesting also represents a large portion of their total costs, often it can be up to 50%, so looking at addressing that, especially against a backdrop of Brexit, is very important."


His vision now is to create small, mobile machines - "little helpers" - that could perform this task, and is now designing, building and testing a rig under field conditions.

At the heart of his vision is the concept of 'variable stiffness' - robotic arms with joints that can be made soft or stiff, depending on the task.

He says the 'soft joint' robots could be key to automated vegetable and fruit harvesting, and that transferable technology could revolutionise fieldwork across a range of crops.

This new work will build on his 'GummiArm' robot, which has two arms and, in many ways, moves more like a human than a machine.

Cameras and sensors in its 'hands' can make real-time 3D models of the crop by assessing the 'information' it assimilates, allowing it to recognise which parts to collect and which to leave.


He said: "These robots are going to be a massive big-data application.

"Machines could even be 'repurposed' throughout the growing season, allowing the core technology to be rolled out to other operations - such as weeding or the application of pesticides.

"If the robot is reconfigurable, it could be relevant to other brassicas and indeed other crops.

"Ultimately, machines such as this will make life easier and simpler as a farmer. It's also cool technology which might encourage more young people to choose a career in agriculture.

"This technology is evolving rapidly, costs are coming down and developments can happen fast which means it's not too long before technology like this becomes a practical and commercially viable reality.

"On a global scale, it could bring massive efficiencies and improve the industry's safety record as there would be fewer people working so closely with large, moving machinery.

"Agriculture has been under-estimated as a potential area for applying advance robotics, but now could be its time."


Through this project, called the Automated Brassica harvest in Cornwall (ABC), and his spinout company Fieldwork Robotics Ltd, Dr Stoelen is also exploring potential business models which would bring the technology to market within two to three years.

This could mean the machines being owned by contractors, with farmers buying into the service when required.

It is also hoped that the cutting-edge 'cool' tech could attract more youngsters to careers in the land-based sector.


David Simmons, managing director of Riviera Produce, which is a partner in the ABC project, has been working in the industry for 30 years.

His family has farmed at Hayle in Cornwall since the 1870s.

He said: "Harvesting costs can be up to 40% of the costs of production of brassicas and skilled labour to do the harvesting is getting increasingly difficult to obtain, especially with Brexit fast approaching.

"In a very competitive market place where our customers demand cheap food, the cost of harvesting is continually rising. Robotic harvesting has the potential to increase productivity and control the costs."

Robin Jackson, director of the Agri-tech Cornwall Project, added: "Farmers have always been pioneers as far as technology is concerned, but the scale of the current challenges we face means we now need a step-change in terms of the rate at which the whole land-based sector develops and applies new technology.

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