Robotic canine to help sustainable crop raising

MTC engineers, Harry Fisher and Joel Kellam with RoboCrop

A robotic canine has been developed at the Manufacturing Technology Centre that can inspect crops for ripeness and quality and detect diseases and pests.

Based on Spot the robotic dog, the robot developed by Boston Dynamics can cut the number of chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture as well as increase crop yield and improve produce quality, while reducing costs.

The RoboCrop team has partnered with fruit farm specialist Bardsley England to look into the commercial, environmental and health benefits of using advanced robotics in the agricultural sector.

Automation experts at the MTC’s facilities in Coventry and Liverpool developed a bespoke payload for Spot to allow detailed inspection of Bardsley’s fruit crops.

The onboard computer and camera combine with a crop-inspecting image processing system to scan crops closely and data can be collected in real-time. The process means that chemicals would only be applied where and when required, removing the need to spray entire fields and orchards.

Harry Fisher, the research engineer at the MTC, said the RoboCrop project: “has been able to demonstrate how using advanced robotics can create a more sustainable and productive UK agricultural sector.

“Importantly, the inspection payload that has been developed specifically for this project can easily be adapted to other industries, ensuring the MTC continues to impact society positively in everything we do.”

Bardsley England, founded in 1892 has 26 sites in the UK covering 850 hectares and employs 420 people. The business supplies 35,000 tons of fruit each year, mainly to supermarkets.

Chief executive Ben Bardsley said their objective was to produce carbon-neutral food and the use of robotics will help them to achieve their aim of totally automating their orchards by 2030.

He said: “Here at Bardsley we are passionate about working with partners such as the MTC who can help us shape the future. The global industry is going through a great change and we need to transform how we grow. Growers need to be incentivised not for what they grow, but how they grow it and the partnerships we are forming are helping us with our future.”

The use of autonomous robots in agriculture has previously been challenging because of terrain, plot sizes and poor implementation. The RoboCrop project, funded by Innovate UK, has aimed to demonstrate that combining artificial intelligence and sophisticated vision systems with agile robots can reap huge benefits.

As well as being used in an agricultural environment, MTC has been working with Boston Dynamics to apply the robot to construction and infrastructure projects to increase efficiency and reduce safety risks in the workplace.