A new autonomous guided vehicle is being developed that could help transform the horticultural sector and help tackle the labour shortage.

A prototype is being designed to meet the complex needs of commercial horticultural, following the launch of a project by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Leading automation experts from the WMG, University of Warwick, are working alongside three horticultural businesses to develop the model.

The three businesses involved in the development process include:

  • Crystal Heart Salad (lettuce propagators, Yorkshire);
  • Valefresco (salads, Worcestershire); and
  • W.D. Smith & Son (bedding plants, Essex).

The aim is for the finished robot to have the potential to work in both glasshouse and outdoor environments to automate the movement of trays and boxes around the production area.

The winning AGV (autonomous guided vehicle) project was chosen following a competitive process where UK horticultural businesses were invited to pitch for WMG to help automate an area of their production. The project was launched by AHDB last year.

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 was tasked with addressing both of these challenges, which we believe they are well on their way to achieving.”

Image source AHDB

Robert Harrison, professor of automation systems, 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.”

A requirement of the winning project was that it needed to be applicable to the wider horticulture industry and solve a problem relevant to many businesses.

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.

James Bean, Crystal Heart Salad Co. said: “WMG has 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 into their businesses at a special event, hosted by WMG, on March 31, 2020. To book, visit ahdb.org.uk/events.