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Farm robots ready to fill Britain’s post-EU labour shortage

Farm robots ready to fill Britain’s post-EU labour shortage

April 26
06:57 2017

The farmworker toiling in a field in Lincolnshire on a recent morning is happy to work nights and never asks for a coffee break. Best of all, he needs no visa.

Meet Thorvald, a member of a new generation of farm robots being readied to plug a labour shortage on Britain’s farms that may soon be exacerbated by Brexit.

“That’s the main motivation for this — it’s a huge concern,” Pål Johan From, the robotics professor who developed Thorvald, said of Britain’s vote last June to leave the EU.

Gripping a joystick that looks as though it were borrowed from a video game console, Mr From manoeuvred Thorval around the grounds of the University of Lincoln, where he is a part-time professor, as a group of farmers and researchers looked on. Its rectangular frame and thick wheels were nothing fancy. Still, one of the local farmers marvelled. “It looks like the future,” he said.

Thorvald has already mastered useful — if rudimentary — tasks: he can carry trays of strawberry plants to human pickers, sparing them miles of walking through vast fields. At night, he passes over plants with ultraviolet lights to kill mildew that might otherwise spoil as much as half the crop.

Now with a grant from one of the UK’s largest produce companies, Mr From and scientists from Lincoln and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences will raise their ambition and try to make fleets of Thorvalds that can operate autonomously.

“They have the potential, really, to do any task in agriculture,” Mr From said.

How soon is a matter of debate. Farmers will be reluctant to invest in robots until they are convinced they are economical. There is also the technical challenge. Picking soft fruits with anything approaching the speed and dexterity of a seasoned human hand may be years — if not decades — away.

Still, robots produced by the UK’s Garford Farm Machinery have already become skilled weeders, using a sensor to identify a plant and then hoe all around it. Robots have also moved up the food chain into the UK warehouses that serve the big supermarkets.

Thorvald’s inventor thinks it will be 10 to 20 years before a robot can pick strawberries at the same speed as a human

In the US, where President Trump’s immigration restrictions are threatening to limit farm workers from Mexico, Blue River Technologies, a California-based start-up, has raised $17m from Syngenta and Monsanto as well as Innovation Endeavors, the venture fund of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.

Its tractor-towed machines can determine an individual plant’s needs and apply targeted treatment, reducing the use of chemicals “while capturing valuable plant-by-plant data”. In Japan, where an ageing population means many farmers are heading towards retirement, robots are growing lettuce — moving up and down aisles to plant, water, trim and harvest.

Developers say such efficiencies will make farm robots inevitable. But Brexit appears to have given them fresh impetus.

Professor Simon Pearson, director of Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology. ‘The industry is starting to raise alarm bells’

The unnamed company funding Mr From’s research, for example, is helping to pay for more than 30 scientists — something he interprets as a sign of their determination to make Thorvald more than a laboratory curiosity. “[They are] more or less desperate because they don’t know what the situation will be in two or three years,” he said.

By then, Britain should have formally exited the EU. Depending on what new arrangements are put in place, farmers could lose access to the tens of thousands of eastern European workers they have become reliant on to perform all the tasks that British workers can no longer be recruited to do.

British farms employed 22,517 EU-born workers in 2015, according to government estimates, about a fifth of the total. In food manufacturing factories, they accounted for 38 per cent of the workers. The agriculture and horticulture development board, a British trade group, believes the actual numbers are even higher.

“If the supply of labour cannot be maintained, or is significantly reduced, the implications for UK labour and the supply chain would be profound,” it concluded in a recent report.

In Lincolnshire, which delivered the highest proportion of Brexit votes, there are already signs that the supply of farm labour is becoming tighter — both because of the hostility to foreign workers kicked up by the referendum campaign and the subsequent weakening of the pound, which has made Britain a less attractive proposition for those seeking to send remittances back home.

“The industry’s starting to see a drift, and that’s starting to raise alarm bells. Both agriculture and food are looking for alternatives,” said Simon Pearson, director of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, which is planning a new £1m robotics building — ironically, with a grant from the EU.

Long before its Brexit fame, Lincolnshire was a birthplace of agricultural technology. Its tractors were the basis for the first tanks. They were widely deployed when labour became scarce after the first world war.

Even with the mechanisation of farming, paid labour has remained one of the biggest costs. Mr Pearson recalled seasonal workers descending on his family farm in Lincolnshire from around the UK in the 1980s. “There’d be minibuses of people driving in from all over the country to do a day of work,” he said. “It was amazing.”

They were succeeded by labourers from eastern Europe after Poland and other countries joined the EU in 2004.

Tom Duckett, a Lincoln computer scientist who is working on Thorvald, knows first-hand the grinding tasks they perform: As a student in Lincolnshire he worked on a pea inspection line. “It’s mind-numbingly boring,” he said. “People would sometimes stand up from the line and just fall over.”

He envisions a future when a farmer will be a “shepherd with a flock of robots”.

The low-hanging fruit, so to speak, are the “slaughter harvest” crops such as corn, which are harvested en masse. Selective harvests are far more challenging. A robot must use sensors to identify the individual fruit, determine its ripeness and then have the mechanical agility to remove it without causing damage.

Broccoli, which is relatively large and hearty, is one thing. But strawberries, which a skilled human manages to pick without touching the fruit, are quite another.

“I would say it’s 10 to 20 years before we can make a robot that can pick [a strawberry] at the same speed as a human,” Mr From said. “Raspberries are even harder.”

Mr Pearson believes robots will master the strawberry even sooner, in five to 10 years. Still, he shared Mr From’s appreciation for human farm workers. “They’re actually low paid but highly skilled,” he said.

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