Robotics experts at the Manufacturing Technology Centre have developed an autonomous robot with potential to revolutionise agriculture. Combining robotics, automation, artificial intelligence and advanced vision systems the robot can inspect crops for ripeness and quality and detect diseases and pests.
Based on Spot the robotic dog, a go-anywhere robot developed by Boston Dynamics, the RoboCrop project can drastically cut the amount of chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture as well as increasing crop yield and improve produce quality, while reducing costs.
The RoboCrop team has joined forces with the UK’s leading fruit farm specialists, Bardsley England to prove the commercial, environmental and health benefits of using advanced robotics in the agricultural sector.
Automation experts at the MTC’s facilities in Liverpool and Coventry developed a bespoke payload for Spot to allow detailed inspection of Bardsley’s fruit crops.
The robot’s on-board computer and robotic camera combines with a specially-designed crop-inspecting image processing system to scan crops for quality, ripeness, pests and diseases. The process means that chemicals would only be applied where and when required, avoiding the need to spray entire fields and orchards. Data collected by the robot can be viewed in real time.
Harry Fisher, research engineer at the MTC, said the culmination of this stage of the RoboCrop project was a proud moment.
“The MTC, by partnering with Bardsley England and Boston Dynamics, has been able to demonstrate how using advanced robotics can create a more sustainable and productive UK agricultural sector. Importantly, the inspection payload that has been developed specifically for this project can easily be adapted to other industries, ensuring the MTC continues to impact society positively in everything we do,” he said.
Founded in 1892, Bardsley England is the UK’s leading fruit farm specialist. Headquartered in Kent, the company has 26 sites in the UK covering 850 hectares and employing 420 people. The business supplies 35,000 tons of fruit each year, mainly to supermarkets.
Chief executive Ben Bardsley said their objective was to produce carbon neutral food and the use of robotics will help them to achieve their aim of totally automating their orchards by 2030.
“Here at Bardsley we are passionate about working with partners such as the MTC who can help us shape the future. The global industry is going through a great change and we need to transform how we grow. Growers need to be incentivised not for what they grow, but how they grow it and the partnerships we are forming are helping us with our future,” he said.
The use of autonomous robots in agriculture has previously been challenging because of terrain, plot sizes and poor implementation. The RoboCrop project, funded by Innovate UK, has demonstrated that combining artificial intelligence and sophisticated vision systems with agile robots can reap huge benefits.
These benefits include:
• Better planning and the ability to quantify yields
• Early disease detection and the ability to target pesticides and herbicides exactly when and where required
• Reduction in costs using less chemicals and manual labour
• Reduction in chemicals being emitted into the environment thus improving soil quality
• Less use of machinery powered by fossil fuels.
MTC robotics engineers have been working with Boston Dynamics, a global leader in mobile robotics, to make use of the capabilities of Spot, which has the ability to navigate difficult terrain, climb steps and go to places which would defeat most robots. As well as agriculture the go-anywhere robot has roles to play in construction and infrastructure projects to increase efficiency and reduce safety risks in the workplace.
The MTC, from its Liverpool facility, is one of the only organisations in the world to make Spot available to any business from any sector wishing to investigate how they can increase efficiency, improve their manufacturing processes and reduce human risk in dangerous working environments.
The robot has already been used by organisations across the world for several purposes including automating the documentation of construction progress, monitoring remote or hazardous environments, and providing situational studies in remote settings.
More information on the RoboCrop project can be found at https://ww.the-mtc.org/case-studies/robocrop-spot-the-robotic-dog/
Founded by the University of Birmingham, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham and TWI Ltd, the MTC’s industrial members include some of the UK’s major global manufacturers.
The MTC aims to provide a competitive environment to bridge the gap between university-based research and the development of innovative manufacturing solutions, in line with the Government’s manufacturing strategy. The MTC is part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, supported by Innovate UK.