The next few years present significant challenges to the UK agricultural industry. Although population growth has decreased from its 2008 peak, the last couple of years have begun to see an uptick in growth once more. Faced with an increasingly expanding population, it must be asked whether or not current methods are enough to keep consumers fed.

Moreover, the UK’s departure from the European Union has left farmers having to consider impending changes following the nation’s formal exit. New regulations could mean that access to tens of thousands of eastern European workers could be lost and the labour shortage means we could see more automation on British farms.

Loss of labour: the Brexit impact

Figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) put the value of paid labour in the agricultural industry at £2.5bn in 2015, the seasonal nature of said labour meaning that the industry relies in no small way on migrant workers to carry out labour-intensive tasks.

Already, however, it has been reported in a survey by the National Union of Farmers (NFU) that the Brexit vote resulted in a 30% drop in migrant labour in the second half of 2016. Compared to the beginning of that year, when no firms reported a labour shortage, the apparent deterring effect of Brexit could be potentially devastating to the industry.

“The results of the first three quarters of the 2016 NFU Labour Provider Survey found that there was a dramatic change in labour availability within the space of nine months, clearly showing the deterioration in the ability to maintain EU labour in the horticulture sector,” the NFU told a House of Lords committee.

Furthermore, one of the labour providers surveyed revealed that, “This is the first year since 2008 … that we have failed to fill the seasonal labour requirements of some of our growers due to a shortage of labour.” With UK nationals tending towards full time positions, and unemployment at a relatively low level, labour demands are difficult to fill without the EU nationals that are now looking elsewhere.

While the drop is no doubt affected by the uncertainty that currently stands around Brexit negotiations, and may change based on the decisions regarding immigration and visas, it is entirely possible that the labour shortage will remain. Unless the agriculture industry can fill its needs with UK nationals, new methods will be required.

Automated agriculture: diagnostic tools and big data

Worth roughly £14 billion to the UK economy, the agri-tech industry employs more than half a million people and the nation has managed to position itself as a world leader in the sector. With automation’s presence in industry increasing across the board to improve efficiency, and the possibility of a physical labour shortage in the near future, agriculture is due an upgrade.

Although a 2016 report found that traditional agriculture was still dominating, high-tech agriculture industries are set to gain a steadily growing share of agri-tech output between now and 2030. As the government agri-tech blog points out “emerging technologies such as unmanned aerial systems, diagnostic tools to identify endemic diseases in livestock, and big data to help farmers work out what to plant, where and when; already accounts for a third of agri-tech output.”

Although automation brings its own set of new challenges, what becomes of the workers being replaced for example, there is great potential for the agriculture industry to make dramatic change with the increased introduction of robotics and automation. Institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University have been developing autonomous robots capable of providing crop field surveys and given the particular challenges of the moment, alongside the constant pressure to improve productivity, now may well be the time to push such an introduction up the agenda.

Talking about the future of automation in agriculture, Professor Simon Pearson, Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology at the University of Lincoln, said, “Farmers operate on fine margins. These emerging digitally-enabled technologies are just a new suite of tools which are now becoming more feasible to deploy. We’ve seen other industries improve productivity in recent years through robotics and automation, like the UK car industry, and as our largest single manufacturing sector even small productivity gains in the agri-food sector could bring real benefits for UK agriculture, supply chain businesses and consumers.”

Robotics specialists: field trials and experiments

Created by robotics specialists from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, the Thorvald robot now being further developed with the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology is one example of how the agriculture industry could improve upon current processes. Capable of performing a variety of functions in the field, such robots could soon be the predominant worker for farms.

Professor Pearson explained, “Thorvald is a mobile agricultural robot which supports a variety of field trials and experiments. It can be programmed to perform a range of agri-tech research tasks – such as carrying equipment and materials, deploying sensor technologies to monitor crops and soils and, potentially, performing advanced functions like precision weed control. The robot can operate in all weather conditions and traverse uneven terrain with its four-wheel drive. It is also agile enough to navigate between rows of crops without touching plants.”

Agri-robotics is not the only field in which the Institute is attempting to combat industry challenges but it may be the one that will most successfully combat the labour issues currently affecting producers. For now the robot may be confined to the experimental side of things but the results of said experiments are likely to guide what may, in the future, tend to the farms of Britain.

As to what’s next for Thorvald, Pearson elaborated on the future, “Computer scientists from Lincoln’s Centre for Autonomous Systems Research are working with the robotics experts who invented and built Thorvald from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences to extend the robot’s capabilities. To do that we’re applying the very latest expertise in machine learning, AI (artificial intelligence) and automation. We have a major research project starting this year looking at using whole fleets of robots to treat mildew that can affect soft fruit growing in polytunnels. We’re also looking to use Thorvald to mobilise some highly advanced hydrology sensors that can be used to gather real-time data on soil moisture for tasks like crop forecasting and flood risk planning.”