EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Agri-Food Robotics: AgriFoRwArdS

Lead Research Organisation: University of Lincoln
Department Name: School of Computer Science


Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) technologies are set to transform global industries. Agri-Food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, contributing over £38bn GVA to the UK economy and employing 420,000 people. It supports a food chain (primary farming through to retail), which generates a GVA of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry, with £20bn of exports in 2016.

The global food chain cannot be taken for granted: it is under pressure from global population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration (e.g. Brexit), population drift from rural to urban regions and the demographics of an aging global population in advanced economies. In addition, jobs in the agri-food sector can be physically demanding, conducted in adverse environments and relatively unrewarding. The opportunity for RAS in Agri-Food is compelling - however, large-scale investment in basic underpinning research is required.

We propose to create a CDT that focuses on advanced RAS technologies, which will advance the state of the art by creating the largest global cohort of RAS specialists and leaders focused on the Agri-Food sector. This will include 50 PhD scholarships in projects co-designed with industry to give the UK global leadership in RAS across critical and essential sectors of the world economy, expanding the UK's science and engineering base whilst driving industrial productivity and mitigating the environmental and societal impacts of the currently available solutions. In terms of wider impact, the RAS challenges that need to be overcome in the agri-food sector will have further application across multiple sectors involving field robotics and/or robotics in manufacturing.

Studying robots for agriculture and food production together allows us to address fundamental challenges in RAS, while delivering whole supply chain efficiencies and synergies across both sides of the farm gate. Core research themes include autonomous mobility in challenging, often GPS-denied and unstructured environments; manipulation and soft robotics for handling delicate and unstructured food products; sensing and image interpretation in challenging agricultural and manufacturing environments; fleet management systems integrating methods for goal allocation, joint motion planning, coordination and control; and 'co-bots' for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories. All these themes will be applied across a range of applications in agri-food from soil preparation to selective harvesting and on-site grading, through to food processing, manufacturing and supply chain optimisation.

The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, located at the heart of the UK agri-food business, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders. The wide-scale engagement with industry (£3.0M committed) and end users in the CDT will enable this basic research to be pushed rapidly towards real-world applications in the agri-food industry. An ongoing training programme will take place throughout the CDT, addressing subject-specific and general scientific and technical skills, agriculture and food manufacturing, Responsible Research and Innovation, entrepreneurship, ethics, EDI, and personal and career development. The programme is supported by excellent facilities, including an agri-robotics field centre with a fleet of state-of-the-art agri-robots; a demonstration farm with arable holdings, glasshouses, polytunnels, and livestock; an experimental food factory with robots for food production and intra-logistics; multiple robotics laboratories; advanced robotic manipulators and mobile robots; advanced sensing, imaging and camera technologies; high-performance computing facilities; and excellent links to industrial facilities and test environments.

Planned Impact

The proposed CDT provides a unique vision of advanced RAS technologies embedded throughout the food supply chain, training the next generation of specialists and leaders in agri-food robotics and providing the underpinning research for the next generation of food production systems. These systems in turn will support the sustainable intensification of food production, the national agri-food industry, the environment, food quality and health.

RAS technologies are transforming global industries, creating new business opportunities and driving productivity across multiple sectors. The Agri-Food sector is the largest manufacturing sector of the UK and global economy. The UK food chain has a GVA of £108bn and employs 3.6m people. It is fundamentally challenged by global population growth, demographic changes, political pressures affecting migration and environmental impacts. In addition, agriculture has the lowest productivity of all industrial sectors (ONS, 2017). However, many RAS technologies are in their infancy - developing them within the agri-food sector will deliver impact but also provide a challenging environment that will significantly push the state of art in the underpinning RAS science. Although the opportunity for RAS is widely acknowledged, a shortage of trained engineers and specialists has limited the delivery of impact. This directly addresses this need and will produce the largest global cohort of RAS specialists in Agri-Food.

The impacts are multiple and include;

1) Impact on RAS technology. The Agri-Food sector provides an ideal test bed to develop multiple technologies that will have application in many industrial sectors and research domains. These include new approaches to autonomy and navigation in field environments; complex picking, grasping and manipulation; and novel applications of machine learning and AI in critical and essential sectors of the world economy.

2) Economic Impact. In the UK alone the Made Smarter Review (2017) estimates that automation and RAS will create £183bn of GVA over the next decade, £58bn of which from increased technology exports and reshoring of manufacturing. Expected impacts within Agri-Food are demonstrated by the £3.0M of industry support including the world largest agricultural engineering company (John Deere), the multinational Syngenta, one of the world's largest robotics manufacturers (ABB), the UK's largest farming company owned by James Dyson (one of the largest private investors in robotics), the UK's largest salads and fruit producer plus multiple SME RAS companies. These partners recognise the potential and need for RAS (see NFU and IAgrE Letters of Support).

3) Societal impact. Following the EU referendum, there is significant uncertainty that seasonal labour employed in the sector will be available going forwards, while the demographics of an aging population further limits the supply of manual labour. We see robotic automation as a means of performing onerous and difficult jobs in adverse environments, while advancing the UK skills base, enabling human jobs to move up the value chain and attracting skilled workers and graduates to Agri-Food.

4) Diversity impact. Gender under-representation is also a concern across the computer science, engineering and technology sectors, with only 15% of undergraduates being female. Through engagement with the EPSRC ASPIRE (Advanced Strategic Platform for Inclusive Research Environments) programme, AgriFoRwArdS will become an exemplar CDT with an EDI impact framework that is transferable to other CDTs.

5) Environmental Impact. The Agri-food sector uses 13% of UK carbon emissions and 70% of fresh water, while diffuse pollution from fertilisers and pesticides creates environmental damage. RAS technology, such as robotic weeders and field robots with advanced sensors, will enable a paradigm shift in precision agriculture that will sustainably intensify production while minimising environmental impacts.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023917/1 01/04/2019 30/09/2027
2278400 Studentship EP/S023917/1 01/09/2019 30/09/2023 Willow Mandil
2278395 Studentship EP/S023917/1 01/09/2019 30/09/2023 Roopika Ravikanna
2278609 Studentship EP/S023917/1 01/09/2019 30/09/2023 Grzegorz Sochacki
2278393 Studentship EP/S023917/1 01/09/2019 30/09/2023 Karoline Heiwolt