How robotics and connectivity set a vision for fruit farming’s future
Robotics innovation has received increased attention in recent years because of the potential it has to unlock value in a multitude of sectors. We know robots are excellent for repetitive work processes, working in unpredictable and unsafe environments, and traversing long distances to gather materials, whether that be raw minerals, fresh produce, or even data.
Their utility is routinely demonstrated in a wide variety of industry verticals, from manufacturing and design to defence and aerospace. Robots are strong, durable, often automated and when used in conjunction with Internet of Things (IoT) and AI technology, they are also smart. This exciting technology can unlock real value and deliver business improvements such as efficiency gains and higher levels of productivity, whilst helping to reduce operational costs. We’re also starting to see more robots powered by renewable energy, meaning their adoption can deliver real change in reducing the environmental impact of the supply chain.
The agricultural and farming sectors have joined other industry verticals in starting to adopt robotics and IoT technology. They envisage a smart, automated UK agricultural sector enabled through the implementation of advanced robotics use cases to assist farmers.
A global R&D leader, BT is constantly looking to find new, exciting ways to use technology to improve solutions, processes and networks and better serve our customers, across many industry verticals. As such, BT is working alongside Saga Robotics and a consortium of partners on the “Robot Highways” project to explore the use of robotics and IoT to optimise soft-fruit farming: to drive automation, increase efficiency, and improve environmental sustainability.
At a recent event BT and partners demonstrated how a fleet of robots with different jobs on a farm can interact and cooperate to form a supply chain operation. We showcased how robotics and IoT can combine to perform energy-intensive, laborious physical farm processes autonomously, such as preventing common pests and diseases in crops and picking and packing fruit.
At the demonstration, Robot Highways showed how Saga Robotics robots can be fitted with perception modules and advanced sensors allowing them to arrive at a plant, scan for powdery mildew (a common fungal disease affecting soft fruit plants) and apply UVC lights to kill the fungus. Other demonstrations showed robots transporting soft fruit to the handling centres, relying on their location sensors to find their way there and back with minimal oversight required.
The robots’ sensors, supported by cutting-edge cloud and edge connectivity architecture, allows them to communicate with each other to form effective supply-chain operations. As a result of this automation, soft-fruit pickers could free up much of their labour requirements previously spent on transporting fruit to the handling centres and spraying fungicides on plants. Farmers could therefore have more time to concentrate on upskilling and increasing yields in the long run.
For the Robot Highways project, BT has developed and tested the edge and cloud architecture to deliver the infrastructure through which these robotics services can operate. We have demonstrated how BT can help the agricultural sector to automate by integrating robotics and other solutions on a single cyber-physical platform.
As a network leader, we aim to utilise our knowledge to help realise the true potential of robotics technologies and develop the innovative new use cases that can add value to so many industries in many ways.
Last year, we opened a dedicated telecoms civil engineering robotics test facility to explore, develop and test robotics solutions that address civil engineering challenges with infrastructure rollouts. Working with the university sector and robotics start-ups, we have been developing the network aspects of solutions involving magnetic, climbing and cable-traversing robotics capabilities tested to address issues such as how to clear blocked channels, mend collapsed ducts and install new fibre network infrastructure.
We are committed to furthering robotics applications in farming and agriculture to add real value within the sector. We must take advantage of the productivity and efficiency gains offered by this technology to address issues around labour availability and help the agriculture sector reach net-zero sooner rather than later. Within the next five years, we hope to see wide-scale adoption of this technology on farms across the UK.
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