The agri-food sector (agriculture, horticulture, food processing and food manufacturing) faces substantial challenges due to a labour shortage caused by the Covid-19 crisis. This could lead to severe problems for many market sectors, such as fruit and vegetable picking in particular.

There is an opportunity for the UK agri-food sector and technology providers to collaborate to accelerate the development and uptake of automation and robotic technologies. These technologies could help fill the labour gap brought on by Covid-19 and Brexit. The innovative solutions could be trialed this season before being scaled and fully implemented for the 2021 season.

A new group has come together to bring the industry and technology providers together to try to address these challenges. This group is made up of representatives from the University of Lincoln, the National Farmers Union, the Agri-EPI Centre, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, and the KTN.

How KTN is helping

We hosted an initial webinar on 8th April to share the vision prepared by Prof Simon Pearson (Professor of agri-food technology at the University of Lincoln) and Dave Ross (CEO of Agri-EPI). We asked for contributions from the attendees to build on this vision.

Watch a recording of the webinar.

Access the presentations from the Accelerating automation and robotics in the agri-food sector webinar.

Here are the key highlights from this webinar.

  • There is a strong capacity to absorb technology by end users
  • The tech industry believes acceleration can have impact
  • There is no single panacea but a range of projects that are viable and can have impact

The follow-up post webinar suggests a range of opportunities.

  • In 3 to 6 months
    Most likely new and existing machines like autonomous vehicles and packhouse automation to help with blueberry, broccoli and raspberry picking.
  • In 12 to 18 months
    Most likely robotics to help with strawberries, top fruit (logistic) and asparagus (with international collaboration).

The outputs from this initial webinar were progressed by the core group into a series of potential industry-led projects. They were then presented to the community to comment, offer support and contribute again during a series of three webinars hosted by KTN. The webinars, held in early May, focussed on three highest priority areas.

Soft fruit (including those grown on the ground, table, and bush)
Group led by Simon Pearson, University of Lincoln (SPearson@lincoln.ac.uk).
Watch the webinar here.
View the webinar slides here.

Field vegetables (including broccoli and selected vegetables)
Group led by Dave Ross, Agri-EPI (dave.ross@agri-epicentre.com).
Watch the webinar here.
View the webinar slides here.

Top fruit (apples, pears etc.)
Group led by Shamal Mohammed, Agri-EPI (shamal.mohammed@agri-epicentre.com).
Watch the webinar here.

How you can get involved

If you would like to find out more about these priority areas and how you could get involved, please contact the group leaders mentioned above. You can also contact Simon Baty, our agri-food Knowledge Transfer Manager who has been working on this project.

Click here to watch a recording of our June 2020 follow up webinar.

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