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Firm takes leap into future with robot strawberry picker

PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 February 2019

Dr Vishuu Mohan at the University of Essex  Picture: VICKY PASSINGHAM

Dr Vishuu Mohan at the University of Essex Picture: VICKY PASSINGHAM

Vicky Passingham

A prototype fruit-picking robot being developed on an Essex jam maker's farm has featured in a report on farming of the future.

Wilkin and Sons’ Farms manager Andrey Ivanov has been working with Dr Vishuu Mohan, a computer science and engineering lecturer at the University of Essex, to develop the robotic strawberry picker.

“The researchers at the university, like many across the world, are trying to develop a robotic piece of equipment that will be capable of identifying when a strawberry is ready to be picked then make a decision and pick the fruit by snapping the stem without damaging or touching the actual berry to avoid bruising,” said Mr Ivanov.

MORE – Wealthy individuals and lifestyle buyers push down proportion of land being sold to farmers

The challenge for the researchers is developing a robot capable of picking strawberries of all sizes in all weathers and conditions. “Dextrous manipulation in unstructured environments is a big challenge for robotics today,” admitted Dr Mohan.

The study is featured in a new report from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which looks at what the food and farming industry might look like in 20 years, with robots, vertical farms and virtual fencing.

The Future of Food 2040 report highlights the importance of establishing a future domestic agricultural policy which enables the industry to increase its productivity, profitability and resilience.

Looking beyond Brexit to how the country will evolve socially, technologically and environmentally, it delves into how changing trends will affect food production

The Tiptree plant’s collaboration is one of three case studies featured.

NFU East Anglia Regional Director Rachel Carrington said: “Agriculture is a progressive and forward looking industry and farmers in East Anglia have always been quick to adopt new technology.

“Our farmers already utilise satellite-guided tractors, drones to survey crops and soil structures, probes to monitor moisture in fields and robots in glasshouses. However, there are still many jobs that have to be done by hand and cannot be replaced by technology, at least in the short-term.

“This report provides an exciting glimpse of the future, but, to get there, it is crucial that farm businesses are not only given the support they need to survive and thrive now, but they start to plan and prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

Agri-Tech East director Dr Belinda Clarke said: “This NFU report rightly positions agri-food production as an industry with enormous potential. Measures to improve the use of finite resources such as soil and land and to increase productivity are to be encouraged and Agri-Tech East welcomes this report.

“However, to encourage the wider adoption of new technology it is vital to establish the business case for farmers and growers. We would like to see a process for independent evaluation of the return on investment.

“We agree, as stated in the report, that innovation needs to meet regulatory approval, but also understand that this can be problematic if the science is progressing ahead of the regulators. We would recommend creating advisory panels that include scientists and technologists as this would be beneficial to all.”

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