In January this year a government funding competition opened to applications for projects on the research and development of agricultural automation and robotics. In October 2022, the government had announced that it would commit £12.5 million for agricultural innovation. The funding is available under two strands: industrial research and experimental development.
This funding comes on the back of significant growth in innovation across robotics applications in agriculture in the past five years. Labour shortages, increased consumer demand and high production costs have accelerated automation in the sector, with the objective of reducing costs and optimising harvests. The government has demonstrated a clear ambition to incentivise innovation in agricultural robotics and unleash its advantages for the agri-food sector.
Impact on the agri-food sector
Robotics has many practical applications in agriculture. Autonomous guided vehicles can help with tasks like the picking, packing and transporting of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled robotics and systems can analyse plants on an individual basis and selectively apply the corresponding chemical if required. Real-time information can be collected and analysed to aid the decision-making process of farmers, who can respond by taking action at a distance.
Agricultural robotics will drive precision agriculture. At a time when the cost of inputs continues to rise, precision agriculture empowers farmers to reduce waste and maximise value. This will lead to gains in productivity and efficiency. Thus, enhanced precision contributes to a more secure food supply chain and minimises the negative environmental impact of agriculture. Ultimately, a farmer’s triple bottom line will benefit.
Agricultural robotics and automation are attracting significant investment from big players in the ag-tech space. The global sector is estimated to be worth $20 billion in 2025. In October 2022, it was reported that Norwegian ag-tech company Saga Robotics has raised an additional £8.5 million to accelerate their growth within the strawberry sector in the UK and internationally. Last August, UK ag-tech start-up Muddy Machine secured £1.5m in seed funding which will help the company to continue developing a robotic harvesting platform.
Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, Mark Spencer MP, the Minister for Farming encouraged farmers to avail of money under the Farming Investment Fund in order to make investments in their equipment, technology and infrastructure to boost productivity and enhance the environment.
The launch of this funding competition for agricultural innovation underscores the government’s commitment to creating a more sustainable agri-food sector.
This funding is part of The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs’ (DEFRA) Farming Innovation Programme and the Farming Futures R&D Fund. It is delivered in partnership with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Transforming Food Production Challenge. The government wants to facilitate ambitious, productive solutions using robotics and automation in agri-food and specifically the horticulture sector.
The government is encouraging collaboration across the industry and amongst its partners to augment the resilience of the food supply chain. They view innovation and funding schemes like this as the catalyst for improvement as outlined in the Government food strategy published in June 2022.
This scheme is in line with the recommendations of a DEFRA led review of automation in horticulture. The review called for alignment across industry and government to drive and fast-track adoption of new and proven technologies. This funding can also be seen as a response to labour shortages in the agri-food sector post-Brexit.
To conclude, the government’s pledge of funding under this scheme highlights the salience of robotics and automation in agriculture. Producers, consumers and the planet will benefit from its introduction. However, the scope of eligibility for funding under this scheme is limited and largely focuses on horticulture. Robotics and automation can play an instrumental role in revolutionising all sub-sectors of agri-food. These technologies do not exist in a silo – they will complement and benefit from interoperability with the Internet of Things (IoT) and enhanced sensor technology. Expect to see more robots working in the fields from now on.
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