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Autonomous Vehicles Help Address Horticultural Labor Shortages

By University of Warwick

March 13, 2020

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An autonomous guided vehicle is being designed by researchers at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick in a bid to help address labor shortages in the horticultural sector.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) launched the SmartHort project in 2018 in a bid to help the sector's economy by reducing labor requirements in horticulture through new technology and automation.

Automation experts from the WMG are creating the model alongside three nearby horticultural businesses: Crystal Heart Salad Co., lettuce propagators in Yorkshire; Valefresco, salad growers in Worcestershire; and WD Smith & Son, a plant nursery in Essex.

The model will have the potential to work in both glasshouse and outdoor environments to automate the movement of trays and boxes around a production area, speeding up production.

We've been able to apply the cutting-edge technology developed in the automotive industry to the challenging environment of horticultural production," says Professor Robert Harrison of WMG. "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 labor costs."

The research teams are working on solutions 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," Harrison says. "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, says: "With the lack of available labor 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," Emeny says. "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 (US$37,200 to US$62,000), depending on its configuration. It is intended to be available to all kinds of businesses in the sector.

"WMG have made several visits to our nursery," says James Bean, Crystal Heart Salad. "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," Bean adds. "If it fulfills expectations, it will make a fundamental change to our business."

"Horticulture is at the forefront of a digital revolution in farming and our SmartHort program is designed to help connect growers with automation and robotics experts to help accelerate innovation," AHDB's Emeny says. "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.

WMG is inviting growers to a special event on 31 March 2020 to find out more about the project and to see how automation can help horticultural businesses at a special event, hosted by WMG, on 31 March 2020. Online booking is available.

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