Robots are on the march again into the last bastion of labour intensive industry - farming and horticulture. Research engineers and horticulture specialists at the University of Warwick are working together to devise a suite of robots and automated systems which could transform farming and horticulture over the next decade.
The researchers from the University of Warwick's horticultural arm, Warwick HRI, and its manufacturing engineering section, Warwick Manufacturing Group, are working on a number of robotics and automation products that will vastly reduce the labour costs of farmers and growers. Those projects include:
A robotic mushroom picker: the robot uses a charged coupled camera to spot and select only mushrooms of the exact size required for picking achieving levels of accuracy far in excess of human labour. The mushroom(s) are then picked by a suction cup on the end of a robotic arm. Whilst the speed of picking is currently just over half that of a human - the mushrooms and the robot can be set to pick 24 hours a day right through the night without the need for any sort of break. The researchers also hope to increase the speed of picking to much closer to that of a human worker.
Inflatable conveyor belt: The Warwick Manufacturing Group and Warwick HRI researchers have helped an agricultural machinery company "Aeropick" to develop a revolutionary group of inflatable aids to harvesting which provide huge savings on labour costs. The inflatable conveyor system can be driven into an open field or covered growing area. Within minutes up to 100 metres of powered conveyor belt can be deployed allowing crops to be processed at high speed straight to cool storage, or washing, or simply sorted and graded while still in the field.
Robot grass cutter: Mowing the lawn is a drudge but for growers, farmers, even golf course owners, with large amounts of grassland it's a massive problem with every tractor requiring a skilled employee to manage such pastures. Researchers in the Warwick Manufacturing Group are developing a new method which can allow a farmer or grower to deploy multiple robotic grass cutting machines at the same time all under the supervision of just a single employee. They are working with the "Ransomes Spider" grass cutting device which can already be remotely controlled and can even mow on 40 degree inclines. They are replacing that remote control with a computer that can use its own data sensors attached to the mower, to autonomously travel across fields working in groups with other robotic mowers ensure that the field is mowed as quickly as possible.