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#ATW21 Tuesday: Robotic Highways

Agri-TechE

Robotic Highways is – for the first time – demonstrating multiple robotic systems on-farm, and between them the robots have travelled over 8,000km since March.
Amid the huge success remain some technical challenges around reproducible operation of the robots, demonstration of convincing return on investment to farmers, and helping upskill and train the farm workforce to work alongside robots.
Read our overview of the event below, and a report produced by the University of Reading can be downloaded here. “The robots are coming to a farm near you – but they won’t be working alone,” was the key message to emerge from the third event of Agri-Tech Week, which saw growers, researchers, technologists and policy-makers discuss the potential barriers to adoption of robotics.
At an event chaired by Prof David Rose of Reading University, key members of the Robotic Highways project led by Lincoln University and funded by the Transforming Food Production, Innovate UK initiative, came together to identify and explore ways of overcoming these barriers. There are both real and perceived barriers to adoption of robotics – a user survey conducted as part of the project revealed that while there is huge support and excitement about robotics among growers, there is a need for short-term support such as for labour careful messaging is needed.

A Hybrid Workforce

According to Coral Clark of the British Growers Association, “It’s really important that we don’t give the impression that adopting robotics and automation means that human labour isn’t still of critical important to the industry.” Coral predicted that while some additional roles will be filled by the robots, soft fruit production is likely to be via a mix of human and automation in the longer term.
“There is also a concern around pricing of the technology itself, as well as longevity of their businesses, so interim solutions are still very much needed as costs in other areas of businesses are continuing to rise,” she continues.

The Money and the Model….

Calculating Return on Investment (ROI) for any new technology is crucial, and one which needs to be tackled to give confidence in adoption. “It’s essential this generation of robots shows a positive ROI”, argued Simon Pearson “We need to be able to show economic stability of the technology, so the next generation can focus on a redesign of infrastructure.” Harvald Grimstead of SAGA Robotics (where the “Thorvald” robot – star of REAP 2016 – was developed) agreed. “Our investors want to see this working now, so we need to show the economic benefits early on.” SAGA is currently operating a “robotics as a service” business model to help build trust and demonstrate that all-important ROI, but is open-minded to changes to its model in the future.
“Measuring ROI on a farm for a single application is actually possible,” said Simon Pearson, however he went on to say that the wider secondary impacts are often under-estimated, such as environmental benefits – and the jury is still out as to how to do this in a meaningful way!

The Role of Innovation

“Invention is not innovation” according to Innovate UK’s Challenge Director for Transforming Food Production (TFP), Katrina Hayter. She also reflected that innovation generally “under-delivers in the short term and over-delivers in the longer term” – a mindset that has helped underpin the thinking behind the TFP Innovate UK funding and is also embedded in the new Farming Innovation Programme being rolled our in partnership with Defra and currently available to farmers.

Learning from Elsewhere

A key theme in any agri-tech discussion is the role of collaboration and inspiration from other sectors. The potential for learnings around health and safety from other industries is key – with some standards already in place for the role of robotics in horticultural and agricultural settings. SAGA has recruited expertise from the rail industry to help apply health and safety learnings in the context of robots and farming. More work is needed, urged Harvald, to understand how existing rules will be applied and interpreted in the context of agricultural robotics – as well as finding all the gaps!

This event was hosted by the University of Reading.
Agri-Tech Week features a mix of in-person and virtual events that are designed to showcase exciting developments in agri-tech. It is coordinated by Agri-TechE working closely with partners across the innovation ecosystem and aims to provide opportunities to attract new customers and partners and to broker collaborations and international connections.