GEN strawberries

The UK is set to host the world's first robotic farm after Innovate UK announced funding of £2.5 million.

‘Robot Highways’ is a project that aims to ensure industry sustainability by addressing labour shortages, the need for global food production and reduce the environmental impact of the farming sector.

The consortium responsible of delivering Robot Highways includes Berry Gardens, Saga Robotics, the University of Lincoln, the University of Reading, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, BT, and strawberry grower Clock House Farm.

The project will receive nearly £2.5m to perform the biggest-known demonstration of robotics and autonomous technologies, which will be hosted at Clock House Farm in Kent. The trial will set out to deliver a vision for the future of soft-fruit growing, where robots will assist growers by carrying out essential, energy-intensive physical farm processes such as picking and packing fruit and treating crops to reduce pests and diseases, powered by renewable energy.

The project is key to industry sustainability by reducing sector reliance on seasonal labour, estimating a 40 per cent reduction in the labour required.

Robot Highways will also provide solutions for moving the sector towards a carbon-zero future, with an estimated 20 per cent reduction in fruit waste, 90 per cent reduction in fungicide use, a huge reduction in the use of fossil fuel across all farm logistic operations and a 15 per cent increase in farm productivity.

Artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies will be harnessed, and improvements will be made to telecommunications infrastructure in rural settings.

Farming minister Victoria Prentis said: “It’s great to see investment in these outstanding ideas which will help us tackle the faming industry’s greatest challenges, from achieving net-zero emissions to investing in sustainable alternative protein for animal feed. Farming has never before been at the centre of such exciting and forward-looking innovations.”

Oli Pascall, managing director at Clock House Farm, said: “Clock House Farm is very excited to be part of the consortium and the demonstration farm for the project, which will help us with our ambition to be an innovative leader in our sector.”

Richard Harnden, director of research at Berry Gardens Growers, added: “We are delighted that UKRI and Innovate UK have awarded funding to this exciting project, which will bring together for the first time many new technologies developed during many previous smaller-scale research projects. We have been partnered with the University of Lincoln and Saga Robotics for the past six years and this project will demonstrate at scale our jointly developed new capabilities in robotics for the UK soft-fruit industry.”

Further projects

Berry Gardens is also part of two additional research projects awarded government investment through Innovate UK. The first is a project that will combine existing technologies with novel plant science, computer vision and a new algorithm to assess the external and internal quality attributes of blackberries and apply imaging to distinguish ripeness, alongside displaying processed spectral image using AR glasses in real-time.

The second is a project which aims to integrate nutrient demand models and AI-based sensors with precision-dosing rigs to improve resource use and productivity, and reduce waste and emissions in commercial raspberry production.

Harriet Duncalfe, chairman of Berry Gardens' Grower Research Advisory Panel, said: “At Berry Gardens we are dedicated to investing in the future of soft-fruit growing and all of these projects are a testament to that. Our ongoing funding of research into robotics is essential to ensure the industry continues to grow and develop to meet consumer demand for good-quality soft fruit, grown sustainably and efficiently. Not only could robotics help growers carry out essential work more efficiently, it will also help reduce our reliance on seasonal labour, all whilst moving the sector towards a carbon-zero future.'