Asparagus gets its own robot thanks to AutoPickr’s picking innovation
Advanced robotics company AutoPickr has raised £710,000 in an early funding round for development of its farm-based robot.
Gus, the automated asparagus picker, has been developed by father and daughter co-founders Robyn Sands, CEO, and Dr David Sands, senior scientific advisor, along with COO Kyle James-Keen.
“The AutoPickr technology is designed as a robotics platform with multiple use cases across agriculture,” says Robyn, who grew up in Downham Market. “The technology combines tried and tested, reliable robotic arms with advanced computer vision AI, state-of-the-art navigation system and a robust vehicle.”
Although founded in 2022, AutoPickr has been a while in the making – it’s a spinout from ST Robotics, founded in 1984, which continues to develop low-cost industrial robot arms from Orwell House, which is also home to AutoPickr.
“The AutoPickr team has a history spanning 40 years in developing reliable and cutting edge robotics,” is how Robyn, who was workshop manager at ST Robotics, puts it.
Gus came about because Robyn has always been a keen allotment owner and gardener.
“I said to David that there’s a massive labour crisis in agriculture,” she says. “Automation is needed because the agriculture market is suffering from still doing things the old-fashioned way.
” I said it could be a challenge to solve, so I came up with asparagus and he came up with the designs. I chose asparagus because there’s a lot of growers locally and it’s a crop I’m familiar with growing.
“The napkin designs were done in 2020 with the original business plans developed during lockdown.”
Asparagus was an obvious choice because the computer vision system involved in identifying the spears is simpler.
“Our computer vision guy took pictures of asparagus spears for months,” Robyn notes. “We didn’t have the ability to go out and hire people, we took thousands of pics and manually trained data sets for a long long time so Gus could learn what a supermarket standard spear should look like.”
She adds: “Asparagus is hand-picked, it’s like strawberries. You need to be out there picking all day every day during the season. It grows so fast – literally in the space of an afternoon – so you need pickers ready the entire season and then you need to let them all go.
“It’s also Brexit and changing political circumstances, plus people saying ‘I can get a better job without putting my back out’. These jobs are literally backbreaking, it’s a relatively damaging job on its own.”
Gus weighs 50kg and is fully autonomous.The navigation system involves the computer using ultra white beacons (UWBS) to map the field: its ‘eyes’ see spears and recognise a supermarket standard spear, picks it up and puts it in the tray.
“It has its own navigation system on board,” Robyn says. “The battery life is pretty good, it has 8-10 hours of use. You’d have another battery so you can switch the battery on location, though we’re working on the robot being able to do it for itself.
“Some of the growers pick up the trays themselves. If it’s a very hot day you can only leave the baskets for half an hour before the spears start to wilt. So we don’t want to decide for them, we have a lot of options that we can change for growers.
“Smaller farms have people collecting the trays. Scott Rumble is our primary grower, he has pickers working in the field and he would go round collecting the trays, he still does that but this would solve his labour issue.
“We’ve been working with Scott since 2019 and for that time he has been a grower.
“He’s interested in the development of the project as it’s something he wants to use, and a few months ago we decided to take him on in the company as we move towards being commercial, so he’s really taken charge of that drive to see how often growers collect trays, how far the storage facility is from the fields.
“The growers’ influence is welcomed. Every single grower I’ve met says ‘I would like to use this’ and it’s something I really care about, as yes, you have a solution to a project but you still need to talk with people.”
The new investment follows an Innovate UK pre-seed funding grant in 2021, and solidifies a schedule that will see three robots being built for more intensive testing next year and a full launch in 2025.
Robyn concludes: “We’re proud of our low-cost solution. Often these robots are very expensive and complex, and the more complex it is, the more things can fail and the less the grower can understand it.
“The final assembly will be at our premises though some parts are machined elsewhere. Prices of materials go up and down, with increases in steel and so on: at the moment we estimate it’ll be around £50k in terms of cost, with a three-season payback so after three years it pays for itself.
“Bear in mind 60 per cent of the cost of asparagus is labour and this robot shows up for work every day, never gets sick and works round the clock.”