University spinout awarded £550,000 to speed development of harvesting robots

A University of Plymouth spinout company has been awarded almost £550,000 to accelerate the development of its raspberry-harvesting robot system.

The grant, from the Innovate UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), will enable Fieldwork Robotics to create a multi-armed mobile robot prototype.

It builds on industry backing the company gained in August 2018, when it signed a collaboration agreement with the Hall Hunter Partnership, a leading UK soft-fruit grower supplying Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose.

Fieldwork was created by Lecturer in Robotics Dr Martin Stoelen, and for this new project it will be working alongside partners including the University and the National Physical Laboratory.

It is initially focusing on raspberries because they are more delicate, more easily damaged than other soft fruits, and grow on bushes with complex foliage and berry distribution. Once the system is proved to work with raspberries, it can be adapted readily for other soft fruits and vegetables.

The Innovate UK ISCF grant comprises £547,250 towards a £671,484 project, and was brokered by the University’s commercialisation partner Frontier IP. It is one of several to be awarded to support Dr Stoelen’s work.

A project to develop robot systems to harvest cauliflowers has received £216,000 from Agri-Tech Cornwall, a three-year, £9.6 million initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, with match-funding from Cornwall Council.

Dr Stoelen is also working on a tomato-picking project in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which has received funding from the Agri-Tech in China: Newton Network+ (ATCNN) fund.

To support further development of its flexible and adaptable robotics technology, Fieldwork Robotics is expected to seek further funding from institutional and private investors during 2019.

Dr Stoelen, Fieldwork’s founder and director, said:

"We are delighted with this grant award from Innovate UK and the Industrial Challenge Strategy Fund, which will help us bring forward the day when our robot system will be harvesting berries in the field.”

Frontier IP holds a 27.5 per cent stake in the company, and provides Fieldwork with support for engineering and software development, fundraising and industry partnerships.

Frontier IP chief executive officer Neil Crabb said:

"The government has identified robotics and artificial intelligence as key sectors to support as part of its industrial strategy launched last year. Fieldwork Robotics’ technology has the potential to play an important role in improving agricultural productivity. We’re very pleased with this award, which provides further validation of the technology it is developing."

Scientists develop harvesting robots that could revolutionise farming practices

We’d like to prove that robotic technology that can work in rural environments is not only possible, but affordable, viable and can help increase productivity on farms.

The Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall (ABC) project is led by Lecturer in Robotics Dr Martin Stoelen with funding from Agri-Tech Cornwall

Read more about the project