Growers concerned about workforce shortages in the wake of Brexit could soon have an alternative solution – robots.

The ABC (Automated Brassica harvest in Cornwall) project is developing the cutting-edge technology to help with the cauliflower harvest and other fieldwork operations.

The project has the researchers from the University of Plymouth and producers in Cornwall creating robots which could potentially work alongside their existing workforces and ensure any availability gaps are filled.

Robotics lecturer Dr Martin Stoelen is leading the project. His vision is to create small, mobile machines, “little helpers”, that could perform this task. He is also exploring potential business models which would bring the technology to market within two to three years and which could involve the machines being owned by contractors, with farmers buying in the service when required.

This new work will build on the successes of Dr Stoelen’s ‘GummiArm’ robot, which has two arms and, in many ways, moves more like a human than a machine. At the heart of his vision is the concept of ‘variable stiffness’, robotic arms with joints that can be made soft or stiff, depending on the task.

Cameras and sensors in its “hands” can make real-time 3D models of the crop by assessing the “information” it assimilates, allowing it to recognise which parts to collect and which to leave.

With such robots recording images and touch-data from all over a field in real-time, they also bring the possibility of gathering information that could be used in a variety of ways, potentially extending their application beyond harvest.

Dr Stoelen said: “Machines could even be ‘repurposed’ throughout the growing season, allowing the core technology to be rolled out to other operations such as weeding or the application of pesticides. If the robot is reconfigurable, it could be relevant to other brassicas and indeed other crops.

"Ultimately, machines such as this will make life easier and simpler as a farmer.

"It’s also cool technology which might encourage more young people to choose a career in agriculture.

"This technology is evolving rapidly, costs are coming down and developments can happen fast which means it’s not too long before technology like this becomes a practical and commercially viable reality.

"On a global scale, it could bring massive efficiencies and improve the industry’s safety record as there would be fewer people working so closely with large, moving machinery. Agriculture has been under-estimated as a potential area for applying advance robotics, but now could be its time.”

Agricultural expertise is being provided by Professor of Plant Physiology Mick Fuller, partnered with Teagle Machinery Ltd, Riviera Produce, CNC Design Ltd and the Agri-tech Cornwall Project.