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Universities win £6.6m grant to inspire a future of farming robots

"Vege-bots" could one day handle and cut iceberg lettuces with the same care as human workers. Picture: Cambridge University

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Imagine a future where fleets of farming robots rove around the fields, nurturing and harvesting crops without human help.

It might sound like science fiction – but the University of East Anglia is aiming to make it a reality as one of the partners in a multi-million pound advanced training centre.

The UEA, alongside the University of Cambridge, is collaborating on the world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics, which is being established by the University of Lincoln.

The centre will bring together the largest-ever group of robotics and autonomous systems specialists from the food and farming sector, with university researchers working with industrial partners including John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

The CDT was awarded £6.6m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, specialising in areas such as:

• Autonomous mobility in challenging environments

• Harvesting agricultural crops

• Soft robotics for handling delicate food products

• “Co-bots” for maintaining safe human-robot interaction in farms and factories

Prof Richard Harvey, senior lecturer in computer science at the UEA, said: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?

“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming.

“At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking.

“This is blue skies research with an East of England flavour and we look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”

Dr Helen Farrier is chief science advisor for the National Farmers’ Union, one of the scheme’s industry supporters. She said: “The UK food chain, and in particular the farming sector, is under unprecedented pressure.

“The NFU is convinced that research and development are critical ingredients in addressing the challenges farming faces and in securing the future success, resilience and global competitiveness of the industry. We believe this CDT is of great strategic importance in delivering the essential skills and tools the industry needs.”

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