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University of Cambridge will help establish £6.6m training centre for agri-food robotics

A training centre for agri-food robotics, funded by a £6.6million award, will be the first of its kind in the world.

A robot harvester (7257415)
A robot harvester (7257415)

Seen as critical to supply the skills needed to transform the global food and farming sectors, the Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics has been established by the University of Lincoln, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.

It will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, creating a cohort of robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) specialists supported by industry partners and focusing on areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.

It is one of 75 new CDTs to be funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Dr Fumiya Iida, reader in robotics at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, is the centre’s deputy director, said: “Agri-food robotics is an ideal research area where high-impact scientific challenges and industrial needs meet. On the one hand, many real-world problems in the industry such as manual handling of crops and reliable recognition of food are still regarded as considerable scientific challenges that the world-leading experts are intensively investigating today. On the other, the solutions to these problems will impact the competitiveness of UK agri-food businesses.”

Among the industry partners are John Deere, Fulbourn-based Syngenta, Barway-based G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

A robot at work in a greenhouse (7257409)
A robot at work in a greenhouse (7257409)

Professor Tom Duckett, professor of robotics and autonomous systems at Lincoln, is the new centre director.

He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade. Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.

“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies. Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering those expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”

UKRI’s chief executive Professor Sir Mark Walport said: “Highly talented people are required to tackle key global challenges such as sustainable energy and cyber security, and provide leadership across industries and our public services. Centres for Doctoral Training provide them with the support, tools and training they need to succeed, and the involvement of 1,400 project partners underlines how much industry and the charity sector value this approach.”

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