Agricultural Robotics: The Future of Robotic Agriculture

Tom Duckett, Simon Pearson, Simon Blackmore, Bruce Grieve

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    Agri-Food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. It supports a food chain that generates over £108bn p.a., with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry and exports £20bn of UK manufactured goods. However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions and the demographics of an aging global population. These challenges are recognised in the UK Industrial Strategy white paper and backed by significant investment via a Wave 2 Industrial Challenge Fund Investment (“Transforming Food Production: from Farm to Fork”). Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) and associated digital technologies are now seen as enablers of this critical food chain transformation. To meet these challenges, this white paper reviews the state of the art in the application of RAS in Agri-Food production and explores research and innovation needs to ensure these technologies reach their full potential and deliver the necessary impacts in the
    Agri-Food sector.

    The opportunities for RAS range include; the development of field robots that can
    assist workers by carrying payloads and conduct agricultural operations such as crop and animal sensing, weeding and drilling; integration of autonomous systems technologies into existing farm
    operational equipment such as tractors; robotic systems to harvest crops and conduct complex dextrous operations; the use of collaborative and “human in the loop” robotic applications to augment worker productivity; advanced robotic applications, including the use of soft robotics, to drive productivity beyond the farm gate into the factory and retail environment; and increasing the levels of automation and reducing the reliance on human labour and skill sets, for example,
    in farming management, planning and decision making. RAS technology has the potential to
    transform food production and the UK has an opportunity to establish global leadership within the domain. However, there are particular barriers to overcome to secure this vision:

    1. The UK RAS community with an interest in Agri-Food is small and highly dispersed. There is an urgent need to defragment and then expand the community.

    2. The UK RAS community has no specific training paths or Centres for Doctoral Training to provide trained human resource capacity within Agri-Food.

    3. While there has been substantial government investment in translational activities at high Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), there is insufficient ongoing basic research in Agri-Food
    RAS at low TRLs to underpin onward innovation delivery for industry.

    4. There is a concern that RAS for Agri-Food is not realising its full potential, as the projects being commissioned currently are too few and too small-scale. RAS challenges often involve the complex integration of multiple discrete technologies (e.g. navigation, safe operation, grasping and manipulation, perception). There is a need to further develop these discrete technologies but also to deliver large-scale industrial applications that resolve integration and interoperability issues. The UK
    community needs to undertake a few well-chosen large-scale and collaborative “moon shot” projects.

    5. The successful delivery of RAS projects within Agri-Food requires close collaboration between the RAS community and with academic and industry practitioners. For example, the breeding of crops with novel phenotypes, such as fruits which are easy to see and pick by robots, may simplify and accelerate the application of RAS technologies. Therefore, there is an urgent need to seek new ways to create RAS and Agri-Food domain networks that can work collaboratively to address
    key challenges. This is especially important for Agri-Food since success in the sector requires highly complex cross-disciplinary activity. Furthermore, within UKRI many of the Research Councils and Innovate UK directly fund different aspects of Agri-Food, but as yet there is no coordinated and integrated Agri-Food research policy per se.

    Our vision is a new generation of smart, flexible, robust, compliant, interconnected robotic and autonomous systems working seamlessly alongside their human co-workers in farms and food factories. Teams of multi-modal, interoperable robotic systems will self-organise and coordinate
    their activities with the “human in the loop”. Electric farm and factory robots with interchangeable tools, including low-tillage solutions, soft robotic grasping technologies and sensors, will support the sustainable intensification of agriculture, drive manufacturing productivity and underpin future food security. To deliver this vision the research and innovation needs include the development of robust robotic platforms, suited to agricultural environments, and improved capabilities for sensing and perception, planning and coordination, manipulation and grasping, learning and adaptation, interoperability between robots and existing machinery, and human-robot collaboration, including the key issues of safety and user acceptance.

    Technology adoption is likely to occur in measured steps. Most farmers and food producers will need technologies that can be introduced gradually, alongside and within their existing production systems. Thus, for the foreseeable future, humans and robots will frequently operate collaboratively to perform tasks, and that collaboration must be safe. There will be a transition period in which humans and robots work together as first simple and then more complex parts of work are conducted by robots, driving productivity and enabling human jobs to move up the value chain.
    Original languageEnglish
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherEPSRC UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network
    Commissioning bodyEngineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
    Number of pages36
    Publication statusPublished - 21 Jun 2018


    • Agriculture
    • Robotics
    • Autonomous
    • Sensors


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