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World-leading collaboration on affordable robotic autonomy for horticulture

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Summary

Antobot Ltd has won a 3-year £1.5m project for a world-first collaboration between Dogtooth Technologies, producing state-of-the-art fruit-picking robots, Loughborough University, experts in autonomous robotics, Haygrove Ltd, leading provider of horticulture infrastructure including field-scale commercial poly-tunnels, and Clock House Farm Ltd, pioneering British soft-fruit growers. 

Horticulture sector challenges

Horticulture is suffering a labour productivity crisis. Higher wage costs, seasonal labour shortfalls, and stagnant prices paid by retailers, have squeezed British soft-fruit growers’ margins to the absolute limit.

Autonomous systems in horticulture

Autonomous robotics are widely recognised as a key solution to the crises, but sector-specific challenges are limiting the transition. Each horticulture farm is unique with challenging and changeable environments. From single robots through to advanced fleets, all need to be able to operate in narrow, GPS-limited areas, safely alongside vital human workers.

AREA-H logo

The project

Led by Antobot, the project Accelerating Robotics and Embedding Autonomy in Horticulture (AREA-H) brings together a unique collaboration of world-class expertise in AI, embedded controls, robotic harvesting, horticulture growing systems and autonomous-operation research.

Using Antobot’s cutting-edge embedded hardware and autonomous software as a foundation, AREA-H will move the needle for both horticulture and robotics.

A horticulture-specific robotics and support system will be co-developed, providing robust navigation using low-cost sensors with interoperability for robot-fleets; increased safety alongside human workers; and integration with existing and new infrastructure to future-proof horticulture businesses and ensure compatibility.

The funders

The project is funded by the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) through the Farming Futures Automation and Robotics competition which targets ambitious solutions for robotics and automation in England’s agriculture and horticulture. The funding is part of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, delivered in partnership with Innovate UK’s Transforming Food Production Challenge.

Through this collaboration across domains with industry, research and growers combined, AREA-H will enable UK agri-robotics to become world leaders in the horticulture sector and promote UK agri-tech developments globally.

From the partners:

Marc Jones, VP Commercial, Antobot Ltd

“We are extremely excited to lead this project and work with such an innovative and sector-leading consortium. We strongly believe that this technology will move forward the state-of-the-art in horticulture autonomy and provide growers with cost-effective, capable and reliable robotics solutions”

Frank Tully, CTO Hardware, Dogtooth 

"Dogtooth’s strawberry harvesting robots are operating commercially on farms in Europe and Australia, consistently demonstrating the benefits of automation. AREA-H offers a unique opportunity to advance horticultural automation further. By integrating computer-vision and cost-effective technologies, the project aims to ensure high-integrity machine navigation, operation, and safety in challenging, varied environments. We look forward to collaborating with this exceptional consortium, drawing from our extensive real-world experience to deliver affordable machines with advanced automation capabilities to our valued customers."

Benjamin Grobb, Design Engineering Manager, Haygrove

“Labour shortages, climate concerns & economic pressures are all driving the adoption of automated technologies within horticulture. The implementation of innovative technologies is at the forefront of the way Haygrove do business and being part of this project will ensure our tunnels are ‘robot ready’ and meet the demands of any technologies our customers business needs demand. The skill and experience in the Innovation team at Haygrove will help ensure any robotic technologies required are integrated seamlessly on both existing tunnels and new installations.”

Prof Cunjia Liu, Loughborough University

“We are pleased to be a key part of this consortium, leading the development of a specialised SLAM solution tailored to meet the unique challenges in horticulture robotics. Our innovation is poised to significantly enhance robot navigation accuracy and reliability across diverse and dynamic farming environments. Together with our industrial partners, this advancement has the potential to catalyse a pivotal shift toward more sustainable and technologically advanced horticulture practices.”


An image showing a poly tunnels, a robotic strawberry harvester and a robot transporting strawberries
Haygrove poly tunnels (left), Antobot's Assist (middle) and Dogtooth (right)


About the collaborators

Antobot is an award-winning agri-tech company providing affordable robotics for sustainable agriculture. Combining cutting-edge hardware and software with a world-first embedded AI controller for agri-robots, we work with eco-system partners to make fully digitised precision farming available for all.

Loughborough University (LU) Centre for Autonomous System (LUCAS), located at the Department of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering (AAE), is one of few research groups bringing together theoretical advances and practical applications of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) to support multi-disciplinary research.

Dogtooth Technologies has produced the state-of-the-art soft fruit picking robot, the basis of an existing picking-as-a-service business for strawberry harvest with more than 50 robots deployed in the UK and internationally.

Haygrove is a world-leading provider of field-scale polytunnels, substrate systems and associated technology, protecting crops and extending growing seasons for farmers of over 30 crop-types in more than 50 countries. Haygrove are also commercial growers with ~500 hectares of berry, cherry and organic farms in the UK, South Africa, Portugal and China, growing high-quality fruit for leading retailers for over 30 years.

Clock House Farm has grown from a small mixed family farm in 1903 to a leading grower of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples and plums with over 300 hectares in Kent, providing over 20% of produce distributed by Berry Gardens. They are renowned for expertise as innovative, progressive growers with an excellent track record of adopting the latest most efficient growing techniques and investing in state-of-the-art tech to deliver quality fruit supported by best-in-class sustainability management practices.



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