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February 1, 2021updated 29 Jul 2022 10:35am

Robots on the farm: why Covid-19 hasn’t supercharged automation in agriculture

Labour shortages have not accelerated automation in the UK's farming sector as much as expected, a new study finds, as uncertainty has constrained investment.

By Amy Borrett

The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the model of seasonal labour underpinning European farming. In an attempt to maintain production, some farms have turned to robots and automation to plug the gap. But a new study reveals that it has not been the watershed moment for automation that many are expecting.

In recent years, agricultural robotics has progressed leaps and bounds, moving from souped-up tractors to complex sensor-based robots that can accurately monitor crop conditions in demanding external environments.

Farmers have also welcomed falling price tags for robots, at a time when the cost of hiring labour for farming has been on the rise. According to a report by Andersons, horticultural labour expenses have risen 34% between 2015 and 2020, with a further 15% bump from Covid-19 labour shortages last year. In contrast, innovative agritech start-ups like the Small Robot Company are slashing the costs of producing lightweight farmbots by around 80%.

But while many predicted the collapse of migrant labour flows from Covid-19 would turbocharge the use of robots in farming, a survey by research centre Lincoln Agri Robotics (LAR) has found that labour shortages have not the spur to adoption one might have expected.

According to the research – a survey of 19 horticultural producers, which together represent around 15% of the UK’s seasonal employment, in November 2020 – three-quarters of farms observed moderate to severe labour shortages that will have an impact on their 2021 production plans, while the rest are unsure about the potential impact.

But while the research found that UK horticultural production is expected to contract to a “far greater degree than expected”, with around half of producers saying they intend to deal with labour shortages by cutting production, only 11% plan to accelerate automation in response.

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The research found that automation currently plays a “limited role in contributing to the UK’s horticultural workforce shortage due to economic and socio-political uncertainties”, with many respondents indicating that greater automation and reduced labour reliance was “currently impossible to deliver”.

Uncertainty coupled with lower profits has prevented farmers from undertaking the necessary tech investments in automation, says Archie Drake, a researcher at LAR.

“Covid-19 and then Brexit have had an impact on labour availability to agriculture in the UK, and especially in horticulture, which is particularly reliant on seasonal migrant labour,” he told Tech Monitor. “[You might expect] this would be a spur to technological innovation, but uncertainty, the lack of money and scaling back production are not the conditions in which they can invest in the equipment or transitions that are involved in technology adoption.”

However, respondents do see automation as the key driver for productivity in the long term: 89% plan to use automation to meet increased demand from 2022 onwards, compared with less than a third this year; while the use of labour to meet anticipated increases in demand is expected to fall from 58% in 2021 to just 16% from next year onwards.

The research concludes that UK agriculture is “obliged to compete over a lower-quality and higher-cost labour supply” rather than “innovate in ways that reduce reliance on labour, develops better-quality jobs and delivers on the global objective of making supply chains more resilient”.

To change this and to push forward the automation agenda in agriculture we need “quick and determined” action, says Professor Simon Pearson, director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology.

“What we’re seeing here is that immediate labour issues are helping to drive that to some extent, but are also in a wider sense acting to undermine what businesses need to [do to] take the fullest possible advantage of technology,” he says. “Labour quality and cost issues seem to be pushing productivity in the wrong direction.”

In the UK, the economic blow from Covid-19 is being felt all the more acutely as it has been compounded by Brexit, which has cut off the critical supply of migrant labour from the continent, further impacting the adoption of robots in farming. EU workers made up 89% of the workforce in 2020, according to The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Seasonal Labour Survey.

Robots as complements not substitutes for labour in farming

A collapse in farming production in response to Covid-19 and Brexit is unsurprising when you realise that robots are not direct substitutes for labour inputs, says Drake.

“From a technological point of view, the development of the robots and the software required to pick soft fruit [for example] is advancing quickly and strongly,” he says. “But the way that that will be introduced into the production systems does not permit for it to be a straightforward substitute for the labour.”

Instead, like manufacturing before it, automation in agriculture is likely to create demand for highly skilled workers. This shift is already beginning to materialise in farming with the emergence of specialised agricultural data analytics and engineering courses at universities, as well as the creation of government-led funds to invest in reskilling, says Belinda Clarke, director of UK membership organisation Agri-TechE.

“There’s clearly an inexorable shift towards getting the robots to do the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs, which frees up a human brain and a pair of hands to do a higher-skilled job,” she says. “These robots are going to need servicing, they’re going to need managing, they’re going to need designing… and that is triggering an uplift in the skills base and the value of jobs.”

For other industries such as food services and manufacturing that are set to benefit from widespread automation over the next decade, establishing a pipeline of skilled workers will be central to managing the transition.

Another important accelerator is open innovation, the practice of collaborating on R&D rather than keeping it in-house, which has been shown to help companies capitalise on investments in automation to unlock higher revenue.

Pharmaceuticals have pioneered this model, but agriculture is slowly catching up, says Clarke. “We’re about 20 years behind pharmaceuticals, in terms of the attitude to open innovation,” she says. “But I would say the big companies are very innovative still in the way they are approaching their innovation pipeline — and those smaller guys really are the engines that underpin that.”

Farming has been slow to adopt cutting-edge technology like robots relative to some other sectors, even before Covid-19, with a stock of operational industrial robots less than a tenth of the size of the automotive sector in 2019.

One advantage of this has been the ability to piggyback on the rapid advancement in areas such as earth observation, satellites and sensor technology elsewhere, which have created a flywheel of innovation in agriculture, says Clarke.

“Bringing those [technologies] into the sector has really accelerated the trajectory of ‘tech-ing up’ agriculture and it’s just got faster and faster and in the last decade or so, and even faster in the last five years,” she says. “[Now] the disruption to the industry and impact on labour won’t just be about the speed at which the technology is available, it will be about its cost, about the integration in current farm practice, it will be about the business model — will you rent a fleet of robots and pay a subscription model, or will you own your own?”

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