University of Surrey: £1million for new study putting robots to work on farms

The FLEXBOT project has won a £998,639 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to research how robots might work on a farm.  

The FLEXBOT project has won a £998,639 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to research how robots might work on a farm.
The FLEXBOT project has won a £998,639 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to research how robots might work on a farm. | University of Sussex
A robot is finding its way around the farm, thanks to artificial intelligence technology and a new navigation solution developed at the University of Surrey. 

The FLEXBOT project has won a £998,639 grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to research how robots might work on a farm.  

Farnham-based Fox Robotics has developed an adaptable robot which can transport fruit at harvest time. Using a series of attachments, Hugo RT™ can perform other tasks like mowing and transporting farming materials outside the growing season – with minimal human supervision. 

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Scientists at Surrey are developing ways to improve the AI system Hugo RT™ uses to get around the farm. This will be put to the test in three settings: in Surrey, Scotland and Peterborough.  

Simon Hadfield, Associate Professor in Robot Vision & Autonomous Systems at the University of Surrey, said: “Researchers at the University of Surrey are excited to participate in this innovative new research project. In a world grappling with evolving agricultural challenges, FLEXBOT aims to provide flexible and reliable solutions to farm automation. Marrying cutting-edge AI research with state-of-the-art robotic hardware, FLEXBOT aims to create a greener, more efficient future for farmers.” 

Using a series of outward-facing cameras, the system creates a bird’s eye view of the robot’s surroundings, enabling it to avoid collisions.  

It is hoped this will crack the challenge of moving autonomously around busy farms. Traditional systems have struggled to find ways of navigating robots into polytunnels and around the items they need to interact with.  

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Henry Acevedo, Co-Founder and CTO of Fox Robotics Ltd, said: “The FLEXBOT project represents a significant step forward in the evolution of agriculture, leveraging state-of-the-art robotics to address critical challenges faced by the industry. The navigation system, based on Bird’s Eye View (BEV) maps, enables the robots to autonomously navigate outdoor environments, including fruit farms, with precision and efficiency. This capability will prove invaluable in logistics transportation tasks within agricultural operations.” 

Researchers and Fox Robotics now hope that their work could help alleviate the impact of labour shortages in UK agriculture and make fruit farms more scalable and profitable.  

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