Harvesting a cauliflower is not as simple as it looks.
First it must be deemed firm, compact and white, before being gently prised from its main stem to prevent bruising, and plucked with a few outer leaves still attached to protect the head.
So when scientists were looking for a robotic helper capable of taking on Britain’s brassica crop, they chose to mimic a tried and tested tool – the human hand.
The University of Plymouth is currently working in cauliflower fields in Cornwall to see if a fleet of smart robots could fill gaps in labour market and help cut costs.
Manual labour can represent around half of total costs of agriculture and can sometimes be in short supply, particularly around harvest. So automating the process would not only keep overheads down but make sure farmers are not left with food rotting in fields because of a lack of human workers.
Robotics lecturer Dr Martin Stoelen invented the ‘GummiArm’ robot which moves more like a human than a machine, and has jointed arms which can be made soft or stiff, depending on if the task requires strength, or a more gentle touch.
Cameras and sensors in its dexterous fingers can also assess the crop as grows, so it can determine exactly which vegetables to harvest, and which to leave, as a human farmer would know instinctively.
“Ultimately, machines such as this will make life easier and simpler as a farmer,” said Dr Stoelen.
“Machines could even be ‘repurposed’ throughout the growing season, allowing the core technology to be rolled out to other operations – such as weeding or the application of pesticides.
“If the robot is reconfigurable, it could be relevant to other brassicas and indeed other crops. It’s also cool technology which might encourage more young people to choose a career in agriculture.”
CREDIT: THE UNIVERSITY OF PLYMOUTH
The project has been dubbed ABC (Automated Brassica harvest in Cornwall) an the test robot is currently deployed in a cauliflower field owned by Riviera Produce, who are based new Hayle.
Dr Stoelen believes the robots could be available within the next two to three years and could be modified to harvest a wide variety of vegetables.
As well as improving efficiency, the team are also confident it will improve the industry’s safety record as there would be fewer people working so closely with large, moving machinery, limiting the chance of accidents.
And with the robots recording images and touch-data from all over a field in real-time, they bring the possibility of gathering information that could for more long-term crop improvement.
“These robots are going to be a massive big-data application,” added Dr Stoelen
“This technology is evolving rapidly, costs are coming down and developments can happen fast which means it’s not too long before technology like this becomes a practical and commercially viable reality.
“A lot of producers are very worried about where they will get their reasonably priced manual labour from – and rightly so.
“Manual harvesting also represents a large portion of their total costs, so looking at addressing that, is very important.”
David Simmons, Managing Director of Riviera Produce, which is a partner in the ABC project, has been working in the industry for 30 years. His family has farmed at Hayle in Cornwall since the 1870s.
He said: “Harvesting costs can be up to 40 per cent of the costs of production of brassicas and skilled labour to do the harvesting is getting increasingly difficult to obtain, especially with Brexit fast approaching.
“In a very competitive market place where our customers demand cheap food, the cost of harvesting is continually rising. Robotic harvesting has the potential to increase productivity and control the costs.”
The project is supported by the Agri-tech Cornwall Project, a £10 million fund which backs development and innovation to boost the agricultural, horticultural and food sectors.
Robin Jackson, director of the Agri-tech Cornwall Project said:“Farmers have always been pioneers as far as technology is concerned, but the scale of the current challenges we face means we now need a step-change in terms of the rate at which the whole land-based sector develops and applies new technology.
“It will help address global issues, such as feeding the growing population and mitigating climate change, but it will also boost profit and efficiency at an individual farm level.”