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Network, Security Sep 11, 2023

Robot Highways: driving change in global agriculture innovation

By Alistair Duke Research Manager

This blog post is based on the research, development and experience of our world-leading research and network strategy team at Adastral Park, who are continuously driving innovation through collaboration with technology partners, industry bodies and academics, in pursuit of tomorrow's technologies.

All over the world, increasingly extreme weather events caused by climate change like drought and flooding are making farming more challenging – with crop yield and soil conditions becoming harder than ever to predict.

Coupled with a rising global population, the amount of people now facing food insecurity has doubled worldwide since 2020. While in less than 30 years’ time, the UN believes that globally we’ll need to produce 60% more food than we are currently for a total of 9.3 billion people. But with many as two in every three business owners in the agri-food sector in Ireland find it difficult to hire employees, a significant number of crops are left to waste year-on-year.

To combat these enormous challenges, a wave of trail-blazing research projects are booming in the agricultural technology (agritech) sector, as they try to explore how we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, human labour and decision-making, in the global effort to improve food resilience.

Exploring new highways to global food security

We recently took part in a pioneering collaborative agritech trial called Robot Highways, at Clock House Farm in Kent, led by Norway’s SAGA Robotics alongside a string of academic, agricultural and technology partners. The main objective was to see whether a fleet of robots, tasked with various roles, could interact and cooperate to form a robust and highly efficient soft-fruit farming operation.

The project was broken down into different use cases that the robot fleet would need to successfully demonstrate on the farm – from fruit picking, packing, counting, spraying, UVC disease control, multi-device scheduling and coordination and self-charging. So far, it’s the largest trial of robotics and autonomous technologies in an agricultural setting.

Designing a bespoke farm operations dashboard

Farmers need to be able to control their entire robot fleet and oversee the progress of all of their different devices in one place. So, to prove its viable real-world application, we designed a prototype cloud-based farm operations dashboard that can integrate incoming data and control functions from all the robots and IoT devices across the farm seamlessly.

Farmers could then see the exact location of each device in real-time, schedule and monitor multiple tasks and check the status of devices, like battery life. The dashboard can also measure performance, keep detailed logs, generate reports and include a range of emergency override features. It even has the capability to integrate live weather updates to improve forecasting and predict how tasks might be affected by changing conditions.

Delivering cutting-edge processing power

One of our other main roles was to develop a flexible edge and cloud-based architecture that could support the high-level requirements of the robot fleets, smart devices and data processing taking place. We could then maximise the performance of different robot tasks by determining the best place for data and computation on the network, whether that was at the network edge on in the cloud.

This architectural flexibility meant that less latency-sensitive applications could be processed in the cloud, where there’s sufficient data storage available to handle enormous volumes of data being generated at any one time. This less time-sensitive data could be analysed with cloud compute power and any identified trends used to help with strategic future planning.

The development of a viable fruit-picking robot is a prime example of how edge compute could support innovation. To rival human labourers, the robots would need to be able to work accurately at speed and respond to commands in real-time. Edge compute’s low latency support for accelerated in-the-field decision-making would be critical to allowing the robots to rapidly process visual data into prompt, on-the-spot actions – like determining whether fruit was ripe to pick.

Exciting implications for future generations

Robot Highways has received wide-ranging interest from farmers, supermarkets and even politicians as they recognise its exciting potential to increase efficiency and yield. Plus, it’s helped highlight how important next-generation connectivity is in powering and enabling the advanced automation capabilities that projects like this rely on. The deployment of a higher bandwidth and lower latency rural 5G network would be the logical next step to amplify the productivity of automated farming and precision-based agriculture.

But its success is far more than just a major milestone on the road to next-generation farming. Robot Highways could have wide-ranging implications for a range of different industries – from drone fleet coordination to automated construction and manufacturing. If adapted, it could solve major challenges in other sectors, especially around labour, efficiency, safety and sustainability.

Committed to relentless innovation

Supporting forward-thinking research and development is a fundamental part of what we do. By working on these types of innovative projects, we’re not just exploring how new technologies can transform industries to deliver a competitive edge to organisations, but how they can also improve the lives of everyone on the planet.

You can read more about the outcomes of the Robot Highways project, and its vision for the future of agriculture, in our recent whitepaper.