The COVID-19 crisis has shown the fragility of food supply chains. It has also accelerated the labour challenges for the agricultural industry predicted for the UK post-BREXIT. Both these elements have generated interest and a sense of urgency for new methods of automating agricultural processes.
After the Brexit vote of 2016 the agricultural industry had seen the initial impact of restricting freedom of movement for agricultural labour. The lockdown has exacerbated this and brought the issue to a head.
In addition, the unprecedented situation has created chaos in the supply-chains:
- Consumer buying behaviour has radically changed with less fruit and vegetables being purchased and more ‘stock cupboard essentials’
- The food service sector has collapsed as demand for ‘food on the go’ and restaurants ceased overnight
- Supermarket predictions of supply and demand have been disrupted as computerised systems try to apply algorithms not developed for the current situation
- Lack of understanding of the whole picture and the implications has led to ‘politicising’ shortages, adding further complications to the system.
Labour and supply-chain management are driving a need for improved automation of the industry. To address this an initial webinar on ‘Accelerating Automation’ was hosted by the University of Lincoln on 9th April, attracting over 80 participants, each offering different perspectives on the challenge facing the industry, together with potential solutions.
Professor Simon Pearson, Director of LIAT/Professor of Agri-Food Technology at Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) comments: “The industry knew there would be a problem in the event of Brexit but it has become a real problem now.
“Even encouraging people into the fields is not a workable solution; the job requires physical stamina, motivation and an efficient technique. One producer commented that while an average 20-year-old would last a few hours’ celery harvesting, a 50-year-old Estonian mother of four with years of experience could keep going all day. There is also the problem of uncertainty when casual labour is used – there is no guarantee they will turn up if they get a better offer elsewhere.”
Simon considers that an alternative to manual labour is required: “What is urgently needed is new methods of automation and now there is a clear recognition of the challenge and the opportunity.”
Participants of the webinar included:
- Growers and producers of fresh produce
- SMEs involved in automation, ie robotics companies
- Established companies that are already using robotics within the fixed environment for example automotive engineering or for clearly defined roles in the outside such as robotic grass cutting at airports
The conclusion: the opportunity is three-fold:
- Assess the availability of ‘off-the-shelf’ equipment that with investment and effort could be viable
- Repurpose existing kit that has been developed for a different purpose
- Invest in emerging agri-tech to fast-track promising solutions
The limiting factors and potential solutions
- Fast track funding – many of the SMEs currently working in agri-tech robotics are vulnerable. Releasing funds quickly would enable these organisations to accelerate developments and to collaborate.
- Lack of engineers and skills – although robotics is a new technology in agriculture the discussion revealed that there is a wealth of expertise in robotics in other industries – notably automotive engineering – and many of these skilled engineers have been furloughed.
- Lack of evaluation sites – the SMEs have been struggling to find real-world sites to pilot and test the technology. Input from producers suggests that produce is being dumped, as it could not be harvested, creating an opportunity for testing technology at low risk to the producers.
- Lack of capital to scale – the step from prototype to working product and then manufacture requires long-term finance. The robotics industry has struggled to find this commitment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while many angels are unable to expose themselves to further risk, some VCs and banks do view this as a potential ‘quick win’ with an exit possible in four years.
- Delay in IP protection – many SME robotics companies have in the past been unwilling to collaborate as IP protection takes years. However this may change as some IP attorneys are investigating a possible fast-track response.
Simon Pearson comments that the first webinar showed that there was appetite for collaboration across the industry and potential for government funding. He is currently preparing a bid for funding and also looking to a distributed model for progressing some of the projects.
As part of this the collaboration has invited contributions from others with an interest in this area.
Call to action – Accelerating Automation of Agriculture needs
Experienced robotics and data management engineers interested in applying their skills to agri-tech automation
Simon comments: “There is a huge resource out there of engineers that have been furloughed and might be interested in exploring the challenge of applying their knowledge to agriculture. We are thinking of some type of distributed development project that these people could contribute to.”
People with knowledge of verification, health and safety for the use of AI and robotics in the real world
Many industries have already overcome the issues that those in the agricultural sector are just facing now. Rather than reinvent the wheel it would be possible to adapt those learnings into agri-tech to accelerate adoption of the technology into the field.
IP lawyers and regulators able to facilitate freedom to operate and to fast-track collaboration between SMEs
Simplifying the legal system so that a pragmatic solution is created that protects IP while enabling collaborative working between academic institutions, SMEs and large corporations is vital for Open Innovation that is commercially viable.
Financial support for scale-up
Any solution needs to be feasible in the real world, so funding is needed immediately to ensure the viability of the existing agri-tech robotics companies and long-term funding is required to ensure that these developments move out of the lab into the field and beyond.
If you are able to contribute any of the above please get in touch.