P1812283: AHDB call for proposals to advance horticultural automation

P1812283: AHDB call for proposals to advance horticultural automation 

Purpose/Primary objective

Develop new links between established and developing expertise in robotics and automation with commercial growers through small to medium scale problem solving project(s) addressing current commercial production issues delivered through novel and cost effective initiatives.


Horticulture is an important area of agriculture with an estimated farm-gate value of over £3.1 billion in the UK. It is also a growing industry with the value of vegetable production alone increasing by 20% to £1.5 billion in 2016. There are opportunities to expand production further by increasing the use of automation and robotics for many stages of production. The drivers for automation include a reduction in labour availability, energy or materials with a potential increase in productivity, quality, accuracy and consistency.  Barriers include environmental conditions which challenge mechanical components; complexity and diversity of production systems and the niche nature of many challenges in horticulture in relation to potential market for developed solutions.

Operations in horticulture with sufficient market potential have already attracted the interest of commercial companies and growers, particularly those whose production systems have sufficient size and/or suitable layout to automate. Transplanters, gapping machines, pot fillers, semi-automated field harvesting rigs etc are now commonplace. Horticulture is however a complex industry with diverse production systems and multiple processes some of which still rely heavily on manual labour.

A 2017 AHDB Horticulture survey of 50 growers confirmed that all growers use some form of automation, with 32% of these using robotics. In the past 10 years, the main area of automation investment has been in harvesting and packhouse technology.  Eighty four percent of growers also plan to invest in automation/robotics going forward and there is a clear thirst for information on automation, robotics and artificial intelligence within the horticulture community. Eighty percent of growers would like AHDB to share more information on this topic.

The AHDB SmartHort campaign aims to help the industry increase productivity and address the challenge of access to affordable labour through; improving management practices; supporting skills development and identifying new technologies. Given the size of the challenge, the need to take account of commercial interests and remain in the pre-competitive space, SmartHort’s key focus is to build links between the challenges in commercial horticultural production and expertise in robotics and automation. This opportunity will be a key part of achieving that goal.


The funding will support experts in manufacturing/engineering/robotics to solve real commercial production challenges that lack realistic solutions from the existing market place.  This will be via a hands on project directly tackling commercial challenges with growers. The project will include delivery of physical prototype solutions rather than a desk based feasibility studies, the key to this initiative is genuine collaborative working between the applicant, ideally as new expertise for the horticulture sector, and UK growers.  As AHDB supports pre-competitive research, applicants should outline intentions for sharing IP and expected approaches to commercialisation of solutions identified in the proposal submitted. 

Applicants are not expected to have identified problems, solutions or grower partnerships prior to application; this will form a start-up phase of work in partnership with AHDB. This call is to establish capability in the manufacturing/engineering/robotics arena to tackle automation challenges in a fluid and proactive way and ideally identify new partnerships for the horticulture industry not yet developed under other projects.  Contractors will need to demonstrate their capability to work on real commercial problems and either demonstrate connections to commercial horticulture or outline how they will ensure the project will develop sufficient understanding of/connection to the sector to deliver a genuine impact.

Proposals will be scored on creative approaches to both ensure growers are sufficiently excited by the opportunity to apply to participate in the project and to select a suitable problem to take forward.  These approaches should also help raise the profile of the AHDB SmartHort campaign in order to flag the wider appetite of the horticulture industry for solutions from a variety automation/robotics specialists working in other fields.

Applications from all providers/experts in the field are encouraged; we anticipate that those within groups that have capacity to draw on a range of skills and resources will be most likely to provide the agility needed to deliver on the project(s) identified.  We expect to collaboratively identify a flagship project following initial engagement with the industry, however capacity to tackle additional or bolt-on projects on a smaller scale e.g. by drawing student projects or other similar resources would be an advantage. AHDB is happy to support this type of wider initiative by provision of links, support for understanding the industry and its challenges and would be keen to publicise any outputs through SmartHort, but there is no additional direct funding available at this stage.

In summary, the information required from applicant interested in applying for funding within this call is:

  • An explanation of the skills, capacity and capability potential contractors have to undertake the challenge of developing prototype machinery to tackle real horticultural challenges that require automation
  • An outline plan of how the prototype project will be tackled with evidence of previous successful experience of this type of activity
  • Examples of previous ‘problem solving’ work within the applied automation/robotics field
  • An explanation of how growers and other stakeholders will be drawn into the opportunity to solve problems and develop a prototype product
  • Suggestions of how contractors will add value to the funding provided through match funding and/or other activities
  • Communication and Knowledge Exchange (KE) ideas to engage a field of experts beyond horticulture into the SmartHort programme via this project
  • Creative suggestions for encouraging grower participation and for objective means for selecting project(s) to tackle

We have an ambitious timeframe for this initiative. We aim to publicise the opportunity to get involved to growers in before the start of the main growing season. Therefore, the deadline for this call to find the ‘experts’ is mid-day on the 18 January 2019. The next phase will be to shortlist potential grower based projects by the end of February so that these can be launched at the SmartHort conference on 6-7 March.  Applicants will need to be available to represent the project at this event. It is expected that practical work will begin in March 2019 and will complete before April 2021.


Along with the direct connection between the successful technology provider and the horticulture industry, the project funded will form an integral part of the SmartHort campaign delivering short updates to the wider horticulture industry in liaison with the AHDB KE and communications teams. 

A presentation to the SmartHort 2019 conference detailing the project aims and objectives and SmartHort 2020 conference updating on the results.

Presentation of results to grower meetings.

Availability for requests for interviews with national, trade and regional media.

Provision of regular monthly project updates through a combination of video, photos, blogs or short Q&A that can be shared on ahdb.org.uk and @AHDB_Hort Twitter account.

A 1000 word article in AHDB’s The Grower at the end of the project.

Collaboration between applicants own press offices and communication teams with AHDB media team to generate agreed publicity.

Demonstration day at SmartHort Strategic Centre farm

A final report detailing the project and its outcomes using the standard research report template should be submitted at the end of the project according to dates agreed in contract miletsones. The report should document the production of the physical machinery/solutions and also explain and critique the approach taken to establish the project, engage stakeholders and deliver a solution.


The budget for this piece of work will be in the region of £45,000. Value for money, including capacity for match funding though other schemes forms part of the evaluation criteria.

Completion and submission of the application form

Applicants should complete an AHDB Research and KE Application Form – Full Proposal Small, referring to the guidance notes to aid completion. 

Applications are made on the basis of the AHDB Research Funding Agreement and any organisation receiving funding shall comply with the terms and conditions specified in the RFA. AHDB will not be held responsible for any expenses or losses incurred by applicants in the preparation of an application(s).

Completed application forms should be submitted to research@ahdb.org.uk no later than 12:00 noon on the 18 January 2019.

Proposed timings for application and project delivery

Stage of Process


Call published

20 December 2018

Full Proposal submission deadline

12:00 noon on 18 January 2019

Applicants informed of outcome

By 31 January 2019

Anticipated start date

1 February 2019 earliest (subject to contracting)

Project duration

Report submission

Up to 2 years

At agreed project completion date

Evaluation of submissions

A number of criteria, summarised in the following, be will used to judge the quality of submissions received.

Programme outcomes

Programme benefits and impact for industry are identified and realistic.  Strategy to extrapolate the achievements from the case study project(s) identified to other growers and to the wider technology industry are clear and achievable. Clear strategy for industry engagement. Approach to deliver industry knowledge exchange (KE) activities. Timeframe to deliver impact qualified. Environmental benefits appropriately identified and any negative impacts detailed. Key Performance Indicators identified. 0-10 score; weighting of 3.

Technical approach and work plan

Evidence of current knowledge (with appropriate references) and awareness of other work, with emphasis on commercially relevant international developments in automation/robotics.  Clarity of aims, objectives, project approach and milestone schedule. Originality and innovation, including with the proposed approach to identify the case study project to work on. Capacity for effective collaboration with commercial companies. Approach to project delivery will be sufficiently robust for growers to confidently pilot outcomes in their own production systems. Feasibility and risk management. Is project management addressed and sufficient? Is the range of KE employed, including innovative approaches, fully explained? Are the timescales against the milestones described achievable? 0-10 score; weighting of 2

Relevant expertise

Knowledge and expertise. Quality of past contributions to, and impact on, the topic. Potential to bring added value through current and/or past contributions. Complementarities of expertise of the team. Is there sufficient industry contact capability available to the team? Delivery record on past funded work (commercial and or through research providers), both research and KE, satisfactory. Applicants also provide evidence that; they will bring new expertise to horticulture; will be sufficiently flexible to deliver against an as yet unidentified problem e.g. by drawing on the resources available from a larger group or collaboration; they have a track record delivering practical solutions to problems in other industries; have a strategy of adapting their skills to horticultural challenges; can communicate clearly with commercial growers   0-10 score; weighting of 3.

Programme costs

Are costs reasonable, clearly defined and necessary? Are the resources for time, equipment and management clearly identified, and are resources sufficient to deliver the programme goals? Will the total budget be adequate to carry out the proposed activities? Added value of co-funding from other parties? Potential for no-cost added value beyond the scope of the lead project identified?  Do costs adequately cover the cost of project management? 0-10 score; weighting of 2

Any proposal that scores less than 50% overall in the evaluation process will be rejected. AHDB reserves the right to liaise with the successful applicant to further develop proposal content as required.

For each of the four criteria under examination the following scoring system will be applied:



Exceptional quality; cutting-edge; highly likely to produce benefits/impact of great importance to the industry; highly innovative; impactful KE activities proposed; applicant is widely recognized in the field with an outstanding record of accomplishment; consortium is strong across all technical areas needed to accomplish the proposed outcomes. Strongly recommend support


Very good

High quality; potential to make an important contribution; innovative; likely to produce significant benefits/ impact for the industry; impactful KE activities proposed; applicant has a good reputation in the field; consortium appears to have more than adequate expertise across all technical areas required to deliver the proposed outcomes. Strongly recommend support



Interesting; innovative; likely to produce good benefits/impact; good grasp of appropriate KE activities; applicant has a solid reputation in the field; consortium appears to have adequate expertise across all technical areas required to deliver the proposed outcomes. Should be supported



Interesting but little originality; likelihood of making significant impact is small; may require significant additional investment to deliver benefits; applicant/team lacks experience, has not established leadership in the field or demonstrated the potential to make impactful contributions. Support may be considered if strong in other areas



Poor quality; not well planned; lacking expertise; not feasible; unlikely to make an important contribution to fundamental or applied knowledge; unlikely to produce benefits/impact; lacking convincing evidence that the proposing team has sufficient and appropriate expertise to accomplish all of the tasks as outlined in the proposal. Should not be supported


Very poor

Very poor quality; duplicative of other work; fails to address the issues; no evidence for demand; cannot be judged against the criterion due to missing or incomplete information. Should not be supported


If you have specific questions relating to this call, please email research@ahdb.org.uk . All Questions & Answers will be published. As part of the open tender process, AHDB cannot discuss specific programme details prior to proposal submission.