Future tech: harvesting apples by robot

Last week, a House of Lords select committee asked why robotics and automation hasn’t revolutionised farming. The answer is revealing about developments in tech generally. 

In recent years, British farms have suffered from a shortage of seasonal workers to help bring in the harvest. It’s made national news, with commentators variously blaming Covid, Brexit or a range of socioeconomic factors.


But some have asked why tech can’t solve the problem. Greater automation on British farms would help secure our food supply and lower the need for imported goods – with a corresponding drop in our carbon footprint. It could be highly profitable, too. 

Given ever more sophisticated advances in automation, it surely can’t be long before our farms are worked by robots – can it? 

In fact, the answer to this question explains why some advances in tech happen faster than others, and also suggests how local and government action might help. 

Ali Capper from Stocks Farm in Worcester is an orchardist and executive chair of the organisation British Apples and Pears. She explained to the Lords committee that picking apples involves a great deal more than just plucking fruit from the tree.  

Workers, she explained, need good ‘dual manual dexterity’. 

‘I need pickers who can pick with both hands [at the same time], pick 10 or 15 apples a minute and grade them [while doing so]. You do not just pick anything in front of you.’ 

Workers must also pick carefully and gently so as not to bruise the fruit. Taken together, this is skilled work for a human – and even harder for a machine. 

‘Some of the science is really hard,’ said Capper, ‘trying to replicate dual manual dexterity, eye/hand co-ordination, or light levels and weather conditions that change all the time. Getting a robot to pick a crop outdoors is in the most difficult box and much harder than a robot needed in a car factory.’ 

In a car factory, of course, a robot is in a controlled environment and repeats identical movements over and again. On a farm, work is seasonal – pickers might be needed for just a few weeks each year. The result is that investing in far more complex and precise robotics would offer a much smaller return on investment 

Last year, Defra’s review of automation in horticulture concluded that, ‘Autonomous selective harvesting offers high labour savings at a sector level but if left to market forces will unlikely be commercially available until well after 2030.’

There will need to be some form of government support for robots. 

In related news, a government fund announced earlier this year will support innovative green technologies in the UK with £19m rewarded to entrepreneurs from around the country.

Photo by Francesco Bovolin.


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