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ATW22: Friday: Sensors and robotics for soil health and soft fruits

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Robotics and automation was the theme for the final Agri-Tech Week 2022 event, held at the University of Essex. Above, Below and Around at Essex Uni feat

strawberry picking robot designed by Dr Vishuu Mohan credit Essex University
Strawberry picking robot designed by Dr Vishuu Mohan with Wilkin & Sons. credit: University of Essex

Robotics for soft fruit

Currently one billion strawberries are picked by hand at Tiptree every year, by humans who have half a second to check the strawberries for ripeness, disease and size. There is a national shortage of labour and so Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree has been working with Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, at University of Essex, to investigate how robots can work in natural, unstructured environments.

The team has come closer to developing a robot that can pick, inspect and pack soft fruits, work alongside humans in a farm environment and also reduce production costs.

Andrey Farm Manager at Tiptree
Andrey Ivanov, Farm Manager of Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree discusses collaborative research

Andrey Ivanov, Farm Manager of Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree, took us through the farm innovation journey from field production to protected tabletop strawberries.

Continual investment has led the farm to become 90% self sufficient for water, and in an average year they have more than enough water to see them through the growing season (2022 has of course been particularly dry). Experimentation in density of plants has also led to an optimal linear meters per hectare of plants, more than twice the original infield density.

 

Wilkin & Sons of Tiptree is undertaking a robotic harvesting project and early disease detection project with University of Essex.

 

Strawberries, mushrooms and lettuce focus of research

Dr Vishuu Mohan, took us through three robotics projects in the department – strawberry picking, mushroom picking, sandwich assembly and lettuce harvesting. The pandemic led to some new discoveries being made due to necessity – such as using synthetic data to train the robots, and attempts to transfer this learning into other crops – cutting down on set up and training time considerably.

The lettuce harvesting project is relatively new but particularly interesting; the group took the principles of car manufacturing and have applied it to lettuce production. This has included a redesign of the field to incorporate a water flume, transporting the crop past the robots much as a conveyor belt would. The idea is to structure the setting in which the machines will operate, then embed the hardware into that. Watch this space..!

Funding from Innovate UK

Vishuu Strawberry picking robot
The team is moving on from strawberry picking to other crops. Credit: University of Essex

Robert Crook of Innovate UK gave a detailed overview of current funding available to researchers and industry.  The Farming Innovation Programme  includes a  ‘Small R&D Partnership’ competition. This is grant funding for industrial research projects worth between £1 million and £3 million. The aim is to further develop new solutions to address major on-farm or immediate post farmgate challenges to enhance productivity and sustainability. The most recent call closed in November 2022 but further calls are expected.

Much discussion followed – largely focussed on how you can work with academics to apply for funding successfully, and how to ensure the technology will be accepted by growers in the field.

There is no doubt that automation systems being developed will need to take into account how to work with humans; whether its from a safety perspective, augmenting what humans already do, or automating the repetitive parts of their job leaving them free for knowledge-intensive tasks. We’ll be seeing collaboration between industry and academia to develop human/robot collaborations and maybe in the future robot/robot collaborations.

One thing is for sure – we can’t tackle our food challenges without working together.

More about University of Essex.


ATW Logo 2022

Agri-Tech Week is a partnership initiative founded in 2014 by Agri-TechE with the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association. The 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.