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Credit: University of Plymouth

Can crop-picking robots solve our labour shortage?

Could robots plug the agricultural employment gap caused by Brexit?

That’s what they’re thinking at Plymouth University, where they have created the ‘brassica harvester robot’, in collaboration with cauliflower and cabbage farmers in Cornwall. The idea is that the robots would work alongside existing employees in the crop picking industry, as part of the Automated Brassica harvest in Cornwall (ABC) Project.

Arable farmers rely on seasonal workers to ensure their crops are picked on time. Yet in the past year Britain has seen a 29% decline in worker volumes, with thousands of job vacancies left unfilled. Food has been left rotting in fields and the situation is expected to worsen.

The robots could help with everything from harvesting and weeding to pesticide application and data gathering and would be ready for commercialisation in time to cope with the Brexit fallout in two to three years. On the downside, they’ll be costly. How many farmers will be able to afford their services?

Unabashed, the leader of the robotics team, Dr Martin Stoelen, remains confident:

“Agriculture has been underestimated as a potential area for applying advanced robotics, but now could be its time.”