The high-tech farming initiative dubbed Robot Highways, thought to be the world’s first robotic farm, recently received a big boost from Innovate UK which says it will fund £2.5m of the project.
The goal of the trial is to ensure industry sustainability by addressing labour shortages, the need for global food production and reduce the environmental impact of the farming sector.
Soft Fruit and stone fruit co-operative Berry Gardens has helped forge the consortium delivering ‘Robot Highways’, along with its member Clock House Farm Ltd., Saga Robotics, the University of Lincoln, the University of Reading, the Manufacturing Technology Centre Limited and BT.
“It’s great to see investment in these outstanding ideas which will help us tackle the farming industry’s greatest challenges,” Victoria Prentis, Farming Minister, said. “Farming has never before been at the centre of such exciting and forward-looking innovations.”
Clock House Farm in Kent is set to perform the massive demonstration of robotics and autonomous technologies focusing on soft fruit growing, with robots helping growers in areas such as picking and packing fruit and treating crops to prevent pests. The initiative will utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
The project is key to industry sustainability by reducing sector reliance on seasonal labour. ‘Robot Highways’ not only will provide a 40% reduction in labour but will also feature solutions for moving the sector towards a carbon zero future by limiting waste, reducing fungicide use and fossil fuels.
“We are delighted that UKRI and Innovate UK have awarded funding to this exciting project, which will bring together for the first time many new technologies developed during many previous smaller scale research projects,” Richard Harnden, Director of Research, Berry Gardens Growers Ltd., said. “We have been partnered with the University of Lincoln and Saga Robotics Ltd for the past six years, and this project will demonstrate at scale our jointly developed new capabilities in robotics for the UK soft fruit industry.”
Berry Gardens also is working on two other research projects through Innovate UK:
- Combining existing technologies with novel plant science, computer vision and new algorithm to assess the external and internal qualities attributes of blackberries and apply imaging to distinguish ripeness, alongside displaying processed spectral image using AR glasses in real-time; and,
- Integrating nutrient demand models and AI-based sensors with precision-dosing rigs to improve resource use and productivity, and reduce waste and emissions in commercial raspberry production.
“At Berry Gardens we are dedicated to investing in the future of soft fruit growing and all of these projects are a testament to that,” Harriet Duncalfe, Chairman of Berry Garden’s Grower Research Advisory Panel, said. “Our ongoing funding of research into robotics is essential to ensure the industry continues to grow and develop to meet consumer demand for good quality soft fruit, grown sustainably and efficiently. Not only could robotics help growers carry out essential work more efficiently, it will also help reduce our reliance on seasonal labour, all whilst moving the sector towards a carbon zero future.