With labour availability the biggest threat to the horticulture industry, exciting developments are being seen in the world of field robotics.
Supported by £1.7m of UKRI funding over 19-months, a collaborative project between Muddy Machines and its growers will develop and demonstrate a working herd of lightweight, battery-operated robots able to harvest vegetables in-field sustainably and reliably.
Precision Muddy Machines’ technology allows farmers to precision harvest crops like asparagus and its Sprout robot can drive through fields, harvesting accurately for up to 16 hours a day with no need for breaks and no decline in performance.
CEO of the company, Florian Richter, says: “Despite these successes, a single Sprout cannot selectively harvest a typical crop alone and a herd of semi-autonomous Sprouts is needed.
“This represents our next significant innovation challenge, realising a herd, or swarm of robots.”
The company, which has already built and successfully field-tested an autonomous asparagus harvest robot, has also received funding to work alongside fresh produce grower Barfoots of Botley to explore the feasibility to harvest courgettes with Sprout.
Mr Richter says: “Courgettes present more complex challenges for imaging software and, in particular, the gripping mechanism, which will need to twist the courgettes off the plant rather than cut at ground level.
“This project is an important step on our journey to develop a completely novel class of agricultural machine that can reliably replace manual labour to address the needs of UK growers, whose platform can be used in this project.”
Also receiving UKRI funding in the horticulture sector, the G’s Fresh Sentinel crop disease surveillance network project uses several identical sensing devices located in a crop to provide an early warning of the presence of disease pathogens and present a recommended fungicide management plan.
Meanwhile, S&A Produce’s Project Blue Planet II builds on the success of its predecessor to develop automated technology incorporating machine vision systems which improve crop yield and quality of fruit, improving flavour and consistency.