Will Robots Ease Britain’s Migrant Labour Shortage This Fruit Picking Season?

by June 16, 2020


The British love affair with soft fruits continues to grow over strawberries, blackcurrants and raspberries. The problem? Not enough labourers to pick up the ripe fruit in 2020.

Coronavirus and Brexit have caused an uproar among the United Kingdom’s fruit and vegetable farmers. The annual picking season approaches in May and they all have a grappling problem -not enough seasonal migrants to pick fruit and other crops.

Soft fruits like strawberries, blackcurrants and raspberries, are a staple for many UK consumers. The production of these soft fruits dominates over 90% of the cropping area with produce being consumed in the domestic market and shipped overseas. Coronavirus and Brexit have left this industry uncertainty over the availability of EU migrant workers. Fruit growers across the county side have struggled to secure help to pick this year’s harvest, less than a third of migrant agricultural workers are expected to arrive this year to the farms. Coronavirus lockdown measures have restricted international movement of labour leaving the future of the picking industry in an informal iffy.


Robotic Arms

The country needs about 80,000 agricultural workers annually to pick and pack the soft fruit harvest. COVID-19 restriction is stated to cause a shortfall of 70% of migrant workers this season and the uncertainty continues to grow for the future. Robotic technology has stepped in to solve this threatening seasonal worker shortage.

As a proposed solution, Agri-EPI Centre together with the National Farmers Union, University of Lincoln, and others, with a backing of more than a hundred fresh food producers have formed a consortium to address the ongoing labour crisis. The consortium aims to facilitate the use of robotics and automation (R&A) for picking soft fruit and vegetables. Though the initial trains are on, the consortium aims to manufacture robotic technology and roll it out next year confirmed by the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre, one of the coordinators of the project.


Picking Trails

The picking robots who help fruit and vegetable growers to pick the ripening harvest are very much at a trial stage. They have started to pick strawberries and would be extended on farms growing apples, blueberries, lettuce and broccoli.

Soft fruits can get damaged very quickly, thus the picking trials are a more complicated process involving many intricacies. It involves the robot to identify the berries, hidden in between the leaves, precisely localize the stem and cut it without direct contact with the soft fruit to lessen the damage.


Costly Affair

While automation has been explored by fruit and vegetable growers in the past, the development of new technologies is a lengthy process involving many trials and cost overheads. Besides, the deployment of robots needs a complete redesign of farms which are traditionally adjusted for human labour.

Fieldwork Robotics working in autonomous harvesting robot’s technology has trialled a 1.8-metre-tall robot costing £700,000 to develop. The results were very encouraging, the whole harvesting process took only about ten seconds per berry.


The Long Road Ahead

Ali Capper, Executive Chair of English Apples & Pears and chair of the NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board, states that the agri-food consortium is an ‘excellent initiative’ and one that was ‘long overdue’.

Adding support to the technology, she said, “Growers have an on-going challenge around the availability, cost of and access to seasonal labour, exacerbated by Brexit and now Covid-19,”. “This is a global challenge with many countries around the world facing seasonal labour difficulties. I commend the consortium for their energy in trying to accelerate the use of robotics in the fruit and veg sectors and look forward to being part of the team that brings new robotic solutions forward to British growers and growers.”.

The Agri-consortium has a long way to go, focussing on its five due courses of action for the betterment of the fruits and vegetables grower’s community across the UK.