What is holding up automated systems for production horticulture?

'Chasm of death' between commercial take-up and work in the laboratory

Robotics: automation slow to progress from the laboratory to commercial take-up despite technological advances - image: Carl R Woese Institute For Genomic Biology
Robotics: automation slow to progress from the laboratory to commercial take-up despite technological advances - image: Carl R Woese Institute For Genomic Biology

The uptake of automated systems on farms is being restricted by legislation as well as the "chasm of death" between technologies being proven in the laboratory and those being taken up commercially, Harper Adams University head of robotic agriculture Professor Simon Blackmore told the agri-tech conference on 12 May.

"Right now we are restricted in the technologies we can use on farms," he said. "There is legislation proposed for driverless cars but we need this also for driverless tractors. Legislation also limits commercial use of drones, to allow them to fly beyond the line of sight, and to spray, sow and scout."

Use of "intelligent" chemical sprayers, meanwhile, should reopen the question of which chemicals should be permitted, he claimed. "We are all aware of less access to stuff. But we have the technology to put chemicals exactly where we want them. There is nothing wrong with the chemicals, the problem is the machine applying it off-target. But we can now put the chemical directly onto the weed or the crop. It's a big opportunity to move to where we want to be. If you change the legislation in light of smarter machines, can you then bring in more existing chemicals?"

But Blackmore said the European Food Safety Authority, which advises the European Commission on EU-wide product approvals, "will never change", adding: "They only accepted low-drift nozzles while kicking and screaming."

Thanks to Harper Adams' ongoing work on a range of growing technologies: "We have a shed-full of new machines that line up with farmers' requirements, but so far only a very few are commercially available. They aren't able to move across the 'chasm of death', though at Harper Adams we now have start-ups to address this. They need to make it across much quicker. We also have the opportunity to replace semi-skilled work with robotics for jobs like strawberry harvesting, for which we have developed a system."

Among other examples of systems that are yet to be taken up commercially, he highlighted a machine that uses thermal imaging to find slugs at night and zap them with a laser. "It can even identify the species of slug," he said.

Automation and robotics can also help address the challenge of depleted soil health, Blackmore added. "The whole ethos of precision farming is that we can't increase yield but we can significantly reduce the cost of production. Ninety per cent of the energy going into soils is wasted, partly in repairing the damage inflicted the previous year.

"Controlled traffic farming is a halfway house using existing machines. But, for example, it's better to sow when you want to rather than when the ground is dry enough to bear the weight of your machines. We have been running the same machines over soils for 50 years, they've just got bigger and bigger." He also warned: "Rural broadband is required for any new developments on farms. It's better in Kenya than here."


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