Greater funding for applied research, legislative and financial pressure to reduce farm inputs, and the growing sophistication and affordability of technology are combining to make automation a viable option for fresh-produce growers. With several such systems already commercially available, all that is lacking is belief in them, according to one of the leading figures in the field.
Professor Simon Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University (HAU), and since January also director of the National Centre for Precision Farming, housed in the Shropshire university's new £3m Agricultural Engineering Innovation Centre, and is a high-profile advocate of agricultural automation and "smart farming".
Yet until recently the conditions to develop such solutions were largely absent from the UK, he tells Grower. "When the Government cut funding for Silsoe (the National College of Agricultural Engineering, which closed in 2007) and elsewhere I had to find work outside the UK for 12 years," before taking up his current post at HAU three years ago.
The funding environment has since become much more conducive to research, such as the recent TSB-funded projects (see box) - several of which feature HAU as a partner - and the Government's £70m Agri-Tech Catalyst, which made its first funding announcement in March.
"We are a bit behind because we haven't had the funding, but now we can turn that around - we have an opportunity to get back into the lead in Europe and the wider world," says Blackmore. "I am getting floods of calls from people looking to establish new consortia and develop new products."
Overseas research contacts
Meanwhile, his department maintains close contact with researchers in other countries, which puts the university in good stead for projects such as automated soft-fruit harvesting. "I have already done a fair bit of work on this when I was in Japan," he adds.
As a result of this turnaround, the country now finds expertise in agricultural engineering at a premium. But Blackmore points out: "We have our own good graduate students in fields like vehicle design and off-road engineering. We train the people we need, who have the necessary balance of theory and practice."
Explaining the role of the agricultural engineer, he says: "Often it involves finding technology from outside the agricultural sector, such as the military, and adapting it."
An example is GPS (global positioning system), which can fruitfully be combined with auto-steering vehicles, he says. "Machine vision, lasers, solid-state sensors and general computing power have all been developed outside of agriculture. They can now tell us more and more about the soil and the crop, while the cost is coming down all the time."
Another such area where the university is pioneering is in the use of miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with high-definition cameras that relay thermal or chromatic images from above the field in real time.
Jonathan Gill, a visiting researcher at HAU and qualified UAV pilot, explains: "Capturing this information could help improve the productivity of agriculture and reduce costs by monitoring for pests and diseases, and for nutrient deficiencies that can produce visible signs of stress within the plants."
Gill was among the speakers at a seminar held at the university earlier this year that demonstrated the vehicles and discussed their potential to improve productivity. Blackmore adds: "Recently, unmanned aerial systems have gained more interest from the academic and business communities and as a result low-cost model-scale systems have begun to proliferate."
While almost evangelical about the potential of such technologies, Blackmore expresses frustration at their slow uptake on farms. "There are two types of farmer - those who want it all, who get it instantly and buy in straight away, and those who hope they'll retire before they have to use any of it. It's a generational thing and it will be the younger generation who are adopting it.
"But I have been proposing this for 10-15 years and there really isn't any reason why we don't have it already. I welcome sceptics asking difficult questions that I need to answer. They say it will cost them a huge amount of money and do them out of a job. But it's the big tractors that have already put people out of a job - the number of people working on farms is already at an all-time low. With this we will need robot operators who will have to be highly skilled and will have to be paid better, which will be better for the rural economy."
On the cost argument, he responds: "You can pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for a new tractor, compared with just tens of thousands for a robot - though, granted, you would need more of them."
All the current drivers point to the need for greater on-farm automation, he argues. "The EU Clean Water Directive, the changes to the Single Farm Payment, world food prices - we need a new farming system to deal with these. The current systems isn't helping."
Advantages of robotics
As a timely example of an easy win that the new technology offers, he says: "With a lightweight robot you can put seed into the ground any time, even when the ground is fragile. If you go onto ground that's too wet with a tractor to do the same job, it will sink up to its axle. The farmer is constrained by the machine." But he adds that large tractor manufacturers are not themselves inclined to go down the robotics route because "it's too disruptive for them".
Blackmore himself is kept busy with regular appearances at conferences and in the media. "I have talked about this on Countryfile and on Radio 4. It's making the news and there is public acceptance of it that there isn't necessarily with GM or chemicals. There's really no downside - it means less energy and fewer chemicals. We are taking the time and effort to say: 'This is really okay.'"
Further down the pipeline, Garford Farm Machinery is already making its optically guided spot weed sprayer commercially available in the UK. Using the same Robocrop tractor-mounted imaging system as in its automatic hoes and in-row weeders, the system has garnered recent awards at both the Onion & Carrot Conference and the LAMMA machinery show.
"Right now we are putting out two machines to farms that will be doing both trials and commercial work," says export sales manager Chris Lunn. "We've had interest from Europe and North America, and there will be a rush to get the machines out for next year."
While interest from carrot and onion growers has been "immense", gaining approval for use in salads "is a little way off", Lunn explains. "It's not yet cleared for using glyphosate in those crops, though that's a process we are going through with the regulatory bodies. It's in everyone's interest." The same technology can also be used to apply products such as fungicides more economically to individual plants, he adds.
Promoting automation in fresh-produce growing
A £13m pot from the Technology Strategy Board's Driving Innovation challenge, co-funded by the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council and Defra, will promote automation across a wide range of fresh-produce areas:
- Telemetry Associates will head a consortium to develop Autopic, the mechanised harvesting of soft fruit through the use of autonomous vehicles and robotics, in response to the loss of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme.
- Syngenta will lead on Project Hyperweeding, which will use real-time crop and weed detection and targeted micro-droplet application of non-selective herbicides or use of low-power lasers to remove weeds from field crops.
- Rail Vision Europe will manage a consortium to develop a low-cost, remotely managed, automated crop-stress monitoring and detection system using advanced imaging and analytics, initially in tomatoes.
- Stockbridge Technology Centre will run the Tru-Nject project to develop variable-rate application of injected fertiliser based on automated soil monitoring, for use in field vegetable and combinable crops.
- Mylnefield Research Services will lead the development of a tractor-mounted platform for phenotyping of plant-stress responses of soft-fruit crops to speed up the breeding of varieties that are able to withstand stresses caused by low inputs as well as monitoring production crops.
- A consortium being led by Berry Gardens Growers will aim to develop a handheld device designed to measure spray deposits on crops, in order to monitor and optimise sprayer performance. Such a device could have a worldwide market, as well as helping to set new standards for the industry.
- Cascade Technologies will manage a consortium to develop sensors to detect latent fungal infections and internal rot or disorders in fruit that can be integrated into existing packing lines.
- Househam Sprayers will head the development of a smart field-crop sprayer that integrates with farm-management software, bringing about more efficient spraying.
- G's Fresh will run a team developing a sensor-based system to deliver precision irrigation of mushrooms, leading to lower water use and crop wastage.