Universities Set Sights on Agri-Food Automation

Three UK universities are plunging millions of pounds into automating the agri-food industry in a bid to revolutionise food production.

The University of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia are set to join forces to create the world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training. The joint venture has been awarded £6.6 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and will provide funding and training for a minimum of 50 doctoral students. These high fliers will benefit from the support of major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobillity in challenging environments. On the agenda are harvesting of agricultural crops, the development of ‘co-bots’ and soft robotics suitable for handling delicate food products - an issue which has proven notoriously difficult in recent years.

The news comes after a professor at the University of Nottingham insisted the UK must continue to invest in research and development to maintain its role as a global pioneer of the food industry. This exciting and unprecedented collaboration will do just that as researchers across the board will bring with them a wealth of expertise.

Heading up the programme is professor Tom Duckett who currently works in Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln.
Describing his vision, the academic said: "Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries - within the UK alone they will add £183 billion to the economy over the next decade.

“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK - twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined - supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108 billion, with 3.9 million employees in a truly international industry.”

"However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.

“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering those expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK."

The 50 selected students will commence their careers at Lincoln before being split across the three involved universities to complete their respective PHDs. Under the guidance of the industry’s elite, they will quickly be developing real world applications for the ever-expanding agri food sector.

Above all else, the project has cemented the status of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council as a global pioneer in food manufacturing. Having already invested in 75 CDTs, the scientific body are poising themselves at the forefront of the robotic revolution.