New robotics funding to transform UK horticulture

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Agri-robotics in the UK has received a huge boost, thanks to a £6.4m investment in a new centre of excellence at the University of Lincoln. AHDB will be the main knowledge exchange partner. We spoke to Simon Pearson, Professor of Agri-food Technology Research, University of Lincoln, to find out more.
Can you tell us about the new ‘Lincoln Agri-Robotics’ Centre?

We have funding for a completely new group of 30 full-time robotics experts to deliver a step change in the development of technology for crop production. At the University of Lincoln, we are already working on projects in this area and this new centre will double the scale of our research. 

Lincoln Agri-Robotics will be working on three grand challenges: crop harvesting, speeding up crop breeding programmes and forecasting and monitoring crops.

Although this funding is for three years, the centre is about a longer-term commitment by the University of Lincoln to deliver a comprehensive programme of agri-robotics research. We want to boost the number of agri-roboticists in the UK, while making sure we deliver work that directly impacts the industry.

How has the centre been funded?

As part of the Expanding Excellence in England programme, Research England want to accelerate the development of key niche areas that would have an impact on UK industry in the future.

The agri-industry needs support to drive productivity, specifically labour productivity. One of the solutions for that is going to be the development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) and we have received £6,344,000 to drive this. 

The investment is a share of the £76m modern Industrial Strategy fund, designed to keep the UK a world leader in science, research and innovation.

Professor Simon Pearson talking at the SmartHort 2019 Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon, in March. 

Watch Simon Pearson's presentation on robotics from the SmartHort 2019 Conference
How will horticulture growers benefit from Lincoln Agri-Robotics?

This is about driving industrial productivity, so, clearly, crop-picking robots are going to be a big focus. We’ll also be looking at robotics for crop forecasting, autonomous vehicles around farm, sensing crop health and measuring soils. We see a large array of applications and the major beneficiary of this project will be horticulture.

The pain point for the horticulture industry is access to seasonal labour, so one research route will be looking at fruit pickers. The other area is about increasing intelligence in horticultural production, through things like monitoring crops, carrying produce around the farm and data gathering. You’ll find robots for this area coming in first because they’re easier to do.

For agriculture, we won’t see lots of robots running around fields, but we will see robots helping to improve the selection of key crop traits to create more resilient varieties.

AHDB supported us in our bid for the funding and we want AHDB to be our main knowledge exchange partner to ensure the industry is benefiting from our work. 

 

Anyone interested in finding out more about Lincoln Agri-Robotics can contact Prof. Simon Pearson on SPearson@lincoln.ac.uk

This is an extract from an interview that first appeared in the September 2019 issue of The Grower magazine, you can read the full interview here.