The future of automation and robotics in horticulture

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A survey by AHDB Horticulture is hoping to measure the level of uptake of automation and robotics within UK horticultural businesses over the last four years.

The questionnaire will also seek to understand what future opportunities there are for investment in new technology and innovation to support the sector.

The survey was originally conducted in 2017. The results then showed over 82% of those questioned believed developments in automation had helped reduce their reliance on labour.

The majority of UK growers surveyed also hoped technological investment would focus on developing robotics for harvesting.

Debbie Wilson, Head of Knowledge Exchange, AHDB, said: “The pain point for most seasonal horticultural businesses is securing enough labour for the peak harvesting periods. Which is why we weren’t surprised most businesses were hoping to find a robotic solution for harvesting in the last survey.

“While robotics technology for harvesting has advanced, our SmartHort programme has shown that the biggest win for businesses would be investing in automating their processes instead. This removes repetitive unskilled tasks, such as moving produce from one area in a packhouse to another, and frees capacity of their existing workforce for higher skilled roles.”

Access to affordable labour continues to be the number one challenge for horticulture businesses, exacerbated most recently by coronavirus restrictions. The Horticulture Labour Barometer provided real time information on labour requirements from May to September in 2020. The report showed 23% of horticulture businesses were unable to recruit sufficient labour to meet their productivity targets. And 100% of businesses experienced additional costs linked to covid-19.

The survey has now launched and will be conducted through a series of in-depth telephone interviews and an online questionnaire. The online questionnaire closes midnight 31 March 2021 and the results will be made public later in the spring. To participate in the survey, visit ahdb.org.uk/smarthort-automation-and-robotics-survey-2021 or contact smarthort@ahdb.org.uk.

The results will help inform the AHDB SmartHort programme, which aims to improve labour efficiency and productivity through automation, robotics and management techniques such as Lean theory.

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