Fruit-picking robot designed to replace seasonal migrant workers on British farms will be 'ready by Brexit'

Prototype launched in a ‘few months’ could help address labour shortage – but industry experts are not entirely convinced

Tom Batchelor
Tuesday 28 August 2018 17:17 BST
Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the University of Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, is part of a major project looking at how robots can help pick fruit
Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the University of Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, is part of a major project looking at how robots can help pick fruit

A prototype robot designed to inspect and pick hard-to-harvest soft fruits is set to be unveiled in time for Brexit, academics have claimed.

Robotics experts at the University of Essex said the machine would attempt to recreate how humans pick with two hands and use cameras to find berries hidden amongst foliage.

Until now engineers have struggled to design a robot that is able to pick, inspect and pack soft fruits given their different shapes and sizes.

The process is complicated further because berries need delicate handling and are often obscured beneath leaves and branches.

Scientists are currently working with a special variety of strawberry which has low hanging fruit to test their design.

“Dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today,” said Dr Vishuu Mohan, from the university’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. “Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing it is a complex integration of vision, touch, force and movement and on top of it the ability to learn and adapt – which is the only way to deal with any changing, unstructured environment.”

The project will launch a prototype in a “few months’ time”, the university said, adding that an initial model could be developed in time for Brexit and the end of freedom of movement rules.

Employers, fruit pickers and industry body British Summer Fruits (BSF) have all warned about a lack of seasonal workers on UK farms. A shortfall of 10 per cent was already reported this summer.

It is feared leaving the European Union will exacerbate the problem but BSF chairman Nick Marston said the robot was “not a realistic proposal to help with Brexit in the short and medium term”.

Warning about a lack of clarity around seasonal workers’ rights once Britain leaves the EU, he told The Independent: “Picking robots are very much at the trial stage. They are starting to pick strawberries but it will be quite some years before they are a commercial reality.”

Only around 40 per cent of the seasonal workforce is devoted to picking strawberries, with planting, crop husbandry and working in packing houses accounting for a large part of workers’ time.

Doug Amesz, managing director of AG Recruitment and Management, which supplies around 90 UK farms with seasonal workers, said he was also sceptical about the role of robots in the fruit picking process.

“Producing soft-fruit harvesting robots that are capable of matching the speed and quality which a human can achieve is an enormous challenge,” he told The Independent.

“I have no doubt that robotics will become an important part of farming operations in the future however it will take some time before robotic technology becomes mainstream.

“Right now, the UK agricultural industry is being threatened by a shortage of seasonal workers which cannot be immediately resolved by robotic technology.

“Until then, we need other solutions to ensure the UK agricultural industry remains competitive.”

Britain’s soft fruit industry has boomed over the last two decades, with around 140,000 tonnes now produced each year.

However, one of Britain’s largest berry farmers revealed earlier this year that it was cutting hundreds of jobs due to uncertainty over the availability of EU migrant workers as a result of Brexit.

Haygrove farm near Ledbury in Herefordshire will employ 200 fewer seasonal workers this summer amid concern over availability of workers and Theresa May’s promise to end freedom of movement next year.

The farm is dependent on seasonal workers from eastern Europe, but owner Angus Davison said his business was cutting the workforce by 20 per cent due to a lack of clarity over the status of workers.

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