WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Robots sat in the doldrums for years without much happening but now, fuelled by AI and advance Machine vision capabilities they’re suddenly coming on leaps and bounds.
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 doesn’t need a 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, and if all goes according to plan he’ll also be joined by autonomous tractors and a whole host of other robotic companions.
“That’s the main motivation for this – it’s a huge concern,” says Pål Johan From, the robotics professor who developed Thorvald, speaking about the UK’s decision to leave the EU last June.
Gripping a joystick that looks as though it were borrowed from a video game console, From manoeuvres 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.
Thorvald Field Test
“It looks like the future,” marvels one of the local farmers. 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, and 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, 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,” says From.
How soon though is a matter of debate but it’s sooner rather than later, and farmers will be reluctant to invest in robots until they are convinced they’re safe and economical. There is also the technical challenge. Picking soft fruits with anything approaching the speed and dexterity of a seasoned human hand may still be years away, although recently in the US FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics both unveiled robots that could pick up to 10,000 fruit an hour.
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, and robots have also moved up the food chain into the UK warehouses that serve the big supermarkets.
In the US, where President Trump’s immigration restrictions are threatening to limit farm workers from Mexico, Blue River Technologies, a California based startup, has raised $17m from Syngenta and Monsanto as well as Innovation Endeavors, the venture capital 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,” and in Japan, where an ageing population means many farmers are heading towards retirement, robots are growing lettuce in autonomous vertical farms moving up and down aisles to plant, water, trim and harvest. Developers say such efficiencies will make farm robots inevitable, but meanwhile here in the UK Brexit appears to have given them fresh impetus.
The unnamed company funding 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, and 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’ve 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, and 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 money 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, and 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, because 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,” From said, “raspberries are even harder.”
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.