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Automate to accumulate

AHDB SmartHort conference hears that collaboration will be key to future technological transformation

Automate to accumulate

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Fresh produce and ornamental production will look radically different in the future, but technological transformation will only happen if the whole industry comes together.

That was the key message from AHDB’s SmartHort 2019 conference, which took place on 6-7 March, where delegates heard that the sector needs a clear vision to drive investment in large-scale projects to accelerate innovation.

At the event experts from around the world discussed new technology from robotic harvesters and automation systems to novel crop protection techniques.

AHDB chief executive Jane King said: “It is often said that we are on the edge of an agricultural and horticultural revolution. We’re certainly on the cusp of significant change. And it’s going to require collaboration across industry. We need to be much more adaptable, imaginative and operate with more clarity and openness.”

To help bring new ideas to the industry, AHDB launched the SmartHort Automation Challenge at the conference. The project will match automation systems experts WMG, at the University of Warwick, with a UK business to develop an applied solution to a real problem in horticultural production.

Simon Pearson, professor of agri-food technology research at the University of Lincoln, said: “We need big meaningful projects or ‘moonshot’ approaches. We need the industry to come together and tell us what the big challenges are. Then we need to aggregate and pool all our resources together, in a few targeted areas, where we can really move the dial to open up new technologies.”

Growers were urged to speak with engineering and robotics specialists to share their problems and communicate the challenges they face that could be addressed with technology. Seeking solutions should also not be left exclusively to the bigger players in the industry, they were told, particularly as the technology is becoming more accessible.

Alistair Frew, operations manager for Cheviot Trees, said: “The big takeaway for me is to be working with fellow growers to look at suitable technologies and the central need that we all have. We need to see if we can pull something together, it’s a big operation.” 

Fumiya Iiada, reader in robotics at University of Cambridge, said: “Agri-food robotic revolution is happening right now. The rise of the robots is happening because they are getting cheaper, easier and faster. This is exactly what happened with computers 30 years ago. They were very expensive and only for big businesses but eventually reached smaller businesses and then consumers.”

Applications for the SmartHort Automation Challenge are open until 29 March, and you can apply at

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