An Autonomous Guided Vehicle is being designed by researchers at WMG, University of Warwick in a bid to help the horticultural sector tackle a labour shortage.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) launched the SmartHort project in 2018 in a bid to help the sector’s economy by reducing labour requirements in horticulture through new technology and automation.
Leading automation experts from the WMG, University of Warwick are creating the model alongside three horticultural businesses; Crystal Heart Salad (lettuce propagators, Yorkshire), Valefresco (salads, Worcestershire), and WD Smith & Son (bedding plants, Essex).
The model will have the potential to work in both glasshouse and outdoor environments to automate the movement of trays and boxes around the production area, speeding up production.
Professor Robert Harrison from WMG, University of Warwick said: “We’ve been able to apply the cutting-edge technology developed in the automotive industry to the challenging environment of horticultural production.
“We reviewed existing AGVs to ensure there wasn’t an available product that could meet the growers’ needs and have run a full analysis on the potential prototype to ensure the investment could be repaid through offsetting future labour costs.”
Our research teams are working on a solution to specifically address needs within the horticulture sector. Having captured the requirements, we have produced a configurable solution, which we are now progressing via prototype designs. Key aspects of the solution include the ability to work both indoors and outdoors and for it to be usable in conjunction with application-specific attachments of different types.
Grace Emeny, knowledge exchange manager at AHDB, said: “With the lack of available labour an increasing pressure for many businesses, there is a growing need to automate more routine tasks to enable staff to be reallocated to more skilled jobs.
“There are two main barriers that prevent the uptake of automation. Many off-the shelf solutions don’t work for diverse horticulture production systems and often the return on investment doesn’t stack up in the current trading climate. WMG were tasked with addressing both of these challenges, which we believe they are well on their way to achieving.”
The overall goal is for the prototype to be developed commercially and is likely to cost around £30,000 to £50,000 depending on its configuration. So it’s available to all kinds of businesses in the sector.
James Bean, Crystal Heart Salad Co. said: “WMG have made several visits to our nursery. They have carried out a study of our logistics and have identified a design of autonomous vehicle which can improve efficiency and remove low-skilled manual tasks. We are excited to see this move to the next stage, to conduct real-life tests of the technology. If it fulfils expectations, it will make a fundamental change to our business.”
Grace added: “We know horticulture is at the forefront of a digital revolution in farming and our SmartHort programme is designed to help connect growers with automation and robotics experts to help accelerate innovation. This project demonstrates the potential opportunities available from matching skills outside horticulture to meet the needs of the industry.”
The project is being funded by AHDB and match-funded by Innovate-UK-backed High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
Growers are invited to find out more about the project and to see how they can adopt automation at a special event, hosted by WMG, on 31 March 2020. To book, visit ahdb.org.uk/events.
To find out more about the SmartHort Automation Challenge, visit www.ahdb.org.uk/smarthort