Robot Fruit Pickers Being Developed for Brexit

As reported here last year, farming is set to take a major hit with Brexit. Nearly a year later, that assessment by former UK representative to the European Union Ivan Rogers is proving to be on-point. Now, industry leaders need to come up with measures to alleviate the problems besetting the agriculture sector, such as the labour shortage for strawberry pickers. Strawberries have traditionally been a British summer treat, and New Atlas reports that the UK grows 115 million tonnes of the fruit annually. The strawberry sector, in fact, is now worth £1.1 billion yearly, as it has grown by 132% in the past decade.

To address the current situation, farming stakeholders are turning to robotics to address the labour shortage. Robotics experts at the University of Essex are set to unveil “a prototype robot designed to inspect and pick hard-to-harvest soft fruits” such as strawberries. The robot will use cameras to find fruit hidden amongst foliage and pick them up the way human pickers do.

The project, however, is not without its fair share of challenges. The biggest obstacle is “dexterous manipulation in unstructured environments,” according to Dr. Vishnu Mohan, who is part of the university’s School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering. “Skilled humans find it effortless, but when we try to build a system which does the same thing, it is a complex integration of vision, touch, force, and movement,” explains Dr. Mohan. He then emphasises that these machines need to have “the ability to learn and adapt” as it is the only way for them to “deal with any changing, unstructured environment.” In other words, those involved in this ambitious project will need to develop robot pickers that can find strawberries in a field; check for ripeness, disease, and size; and gently pick the fruit without bruising them.

Despite the challenges, there is much optimism that a prototype will be unveiled in a few months, and that an initial model will be ready by the time the UK leaves the European Union (EU), which is just six months away. If so, it would be a welcome development for a strawberry sector whose labour force has been slashed by some 10% already this summer. This labour shortfall is expected to persist, and even get worse once the UK officially leaves the EU next year.

On top of this labour shortage for strawberry pickers, the UK is also facing other challenges that can be directly attributed to Brexit, like dire economic consequences both in the short term and in the long term. The Financial Times claims that the short-term impact of Brexit has already been felt, with the sterling sliding, the stock markets reeling, and investments being frozen. The long-term impact of this break from Brussels, on the other hand, is purely speculation, though the outlook also looks bleak. An article posted by FXCM suggests that the economic fallout of a hard Brexit could reach £190 billion by 2030. Whether or not this estimate proves correct years from now likely hinges on how well the UK utilises the 21-month transition period to prepare for its impending divorce with the EU. Simply, if economic concerns are addressed adequately during this period, the projected £190 billion economic fallout may be reduced significantly. Farmers and workers in agriculture will be hoping that a comprehensive trade deal can be struck with minimal disruption.

The potential fallout of Brexit and the development of automated robots are slowly transforming the country’s agricultural industry. Robotic fruit pickers are likely the first step in a now rapidly evolving sector.

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