Future investment in automation should be focused on harvesting and improvements within the pack-house, according to an AHDB Horticulture survey.
Areas of production with particularly high manual labour inputs, such as harvesting, emerged as a high priority for future research and investment, with nearly 60 per cent of growers identifying this as an area to focus on.
Other responses highlighted a need for developments in transplanting and planting, crop monitoring, application of crop protection products (including biologicals), transport systems, grading and packing.
Some 82 per cent of UK growers believe recent developments in automation have helped reduce their reliance on labour, according to the study.
Dr Debbie Wilson, AHDB’s head of knowledge exchange, said: “Labour utilisation is a clear priority in our current strategy. It’s critical that our activities complement rather than duplicate existing industry developments, which is what this survey was designed to help us investigate.
“Many growers look to robotics as a solution to labour availability issues for the sector, although they recognise that new developments are likely to be long term.
She added: “Our plans in this area include identifying new ideas from international horizon scanning and sharing best practice. This is where AHDB will focus its effort alongside our labour efficiency and developing best practice in business management.”
In the survey, growers also showed a commitment to advancing automation themselves, with a third of respondents saying they had begun developing their own in-house solutions, and a further third already involved in R&D projects.
The results demonstrate that available automation is being widely used in the horticulture industry, with the main recent advances made in transplanting/planting, moving crops, and grading.
The use of robotics is less widespread, with 32 per cent of growers using what they described as ‘some element of robotics’ that incorporaes feedback and sensing. The main area of use was for moving products around on a holding.