Defra Farming podcast

Tim Mordan and Rui Andrês - Government-funded innovation

February 21, 2022 Defra
Defra Farming podcast
Tim Mordan and Rui Andrês - Government-funded innovation
Show Notes Transcript

In the seventh episode of the Future Farming podcast, Tim Mordan, Defra’s Head of Farming Innovation, Productivity and Science talks to Rui Andrês, CEO of Fieldwork Robotics, about their innovative raspberry robot picker.

Listen to find out how the project was developed, initially at Plymouth University, and then with the help of government innovation funding to bring it to market.

Find out more about government innovation funding for farming:

How we're encouraging innovation in farming

UKRI: find out about farming innovation funding


Tim Mordan, Head of Farming Innovation, Productivity and Science, Defra

Hello, everybody, and welcome to this edition of the Future Farming podcast. I'm Tim Mordan, head of the innovation, productivity and science team here in Defra, and in this one, we're going to be talking to Rui Andrês. He'll introduce himself in a moment, but he's leading a really exciting robotic raspberry picking project, which we're going to hear more about in a moment, and we're going to be having a discussion about that project, how he benefited from government funding and a broader discussion about robotics and automation. 

So, first of all, Rui, welcome. It's great to have you with us, and I hope that when things free up, we'll be able to see this robot in real life but after you've introduced yourself, maybe we can just have a quick word about what the project is all about. But do you want to explain your role really first?


Rui Andrês, CEO, Fieldwork Robotics

Yes. Thank you very much, Tim, and thank you for the invitation. I'm currently the CEO of Fieldwork Robotics. I've supported the company to be spun off out of Plymouth University. My background is a mix between engineering and venture capital, and basically the skills I brought to the company to support them on the management side, but also on risk mitigation, and that we bring something that is really complex from a university into the market.


Tim Mordan

Okay, great. So what we want to do is just have a discussion about your project, hear about what you're doing as a real life current project that's benefited from government funding, and then maybe broaden it out into a few other topics. But just before I ask you to say a bit more about the project, Rui, why on earth did you choose raspberries because from my experience as an amateur gardener, I know that they're difficult little so-and-sos to pick and they always end up on the floor, and most of it ends up on my clothes. So why did you possibly pick the most difficult fruit?


Rui Andrês

Well, it's a mix of technology and opportunity. If we look first on the opportunity side, there are a lot of companies trying to develop robots to harvest strawberries and tomatoes. These fruits tend to be a bit firmer.


There is no other company as far as we are aware that is trying, even trying to harvest raspberries. Then if we look into the markets, we are talking about a market that is much smaller than strawberries but that is growing at 22% per annum, and the base is roughly around 2 billion U.S. dollars market size.


So we are talking about a very interesting market in terms of growth, but also in terms of opportunity, as we are not facing any direct competitors in this space exactly because it's very hard to harvest. Then looking back into the technology, Dr. Martin Stoelen has developed a robotic arm that is able to operate in very complex environments, and if you look into the way that raspberries are grown, then you have wires sustaining the crop and automated robots that try to go into these type of crop will start damaging the the ropes that hold the crop.


And we have basically built an arm that allows us to absorb those impacts. So even if our cameras or sensors fail, we will not damage the assets of the grower, and that is a big differentiation between ourselves and the rest of the robotic companies. Also, the way we have developed the robot allows very easily and quickly to go from raspberries into strawberries. So our strategy has been addressing a market that, due to the difficulties, nobody else is able to address. And then over time, we want to address the same markets that are being addressed by our competitors.


Tim Mordan

OK, great, thanks. And do you want to just say a bit? Tell us a bit more about where you are with the project next steps, commercialisation and those kind of difficult questions I know you're grappling with.


Rui Andrês

Yes. So in terms of development, it has been a great path and without the funding, we wouldn't be able to be where we are today because the risk of bringing something like this to the market is quite high. Luckily, we have been able to develop the technology in such a way that we have been able to engage with companies such as Bosch UK. We have been approached by large players that are not well known in the UK, but they are well known in continental Europe, in the Americas as well, such as Bonduelle.


And we have been working with British growers that have farms both in the UK and continental Europe. Working with farmers has proven very helpful because they teach us what they need to have in terms of quality, in terms of sizing, timings, where can we add value for them as well? And the synergy is now translating into something that is working, is ready to go into the field and we'll start providing commercial service and operations from January 2022.


Tim Mordan

Okay, great. And those companies that have been approaching you, did you have to phone them up and hassle them? Or were they knocking on your door, eager to get hold of this technology?


Rui Andrês

It was a mix of both. So I can't mention all of the companies we are in discussions with because they are not in the public domain, but in some cases they were companies that were part of the team network so we already knew them. They participated with us in other projects from the past and they trust the way we mitigate risk and how we try to bring things to the market. So they like our approach, our culture, the way we work.


Other companies, they basically heard about us, a little bit in the sense of what you were saying, why raspberries? Because it's one of the hardest. And the fact that we have developed a technology that is able to address one of the hardest crops in the fruit market got the attention of a lot of players, and we started having calls, emails from British growers, from potential partners. But most interestingly, we got calls from Canada, U.S., New Zealand, Australia with a lot of growers that want to collaborate with us and we have kept them in the loop and we are building an ecosystem. So once we are ready to ramp up the production, we already have the right channels, we have the trust and we have the clients already lined up.


Tim Mordan

Okay, that's great. You mentioned, Rui, that you received government funding, which was important to the project. Do you just want to say a bit more about that, why government funding was so important?


Rui Andrês

Yes. When I engaged the first time with the project at Plymouth University, we were talking about a technology that would work in a dark environment that was very, very slow, and it was basically just one arm. And we thought, the government funding, we wouldn't be able to basically pick up the technology from where it was at the university and bring it into a commercial stage because most investors would walk away from the moment we would show the technology as it was. So what happened at the time was one of the founder shareholders put a loan into the company and we we have been able to to get the rest of the money from Innovate UK, which allows us to basically go from one arm that only operates in a very dark environment to something that is a robot that is able to operate in the fields. And that has been attracting not only the interest from growers, but also large corporates throughout the UK and other parts of the world.


Tim Mordan

Okay, great. And clearly, automation and robotics, especially in horticulture, is very topical at the moment because, you know, we have a labour shortage across all areas of agriculture in the economy at the moment. But in horticulture at the moment, we've relied heavily on seasonal workers, mainly from Eastern Europe, for a number of decades. And how will your robot compare to a super picker from Eastern Europe?


Rui Andrês

Yes, that's a very interesting question. So on the first side, I'd just like to emphasise this is not a UK-wide problem. We are seeing exactly the same problem in North America, across continental Europe, including, for example, France, Portugal, Spain. We are seeing it even in India, exactly the same subject appearing over and over in discussions with growers. The second point is, just to give you an idea, I was having a discussion a couple of weeks ago with a Portuguese grower that has 80 hectares of fruit, and he could only harvest 10 hectares.


So this tells you the shortage is quite high. It's not just the UK, this is a worldwide problem, and it's really good to see British technology going into different markets and being applicable to different things. Now, in terms of how we compare, we will not compete in costs because unlike the factory where robots will take things from A to B, in horticulture you need to rely on sensors, cameras that have a lot of noise and uncertainty. So you need to work around all of this noise, try to reduce it, and whenever you find the targets, you need to be sure that it's something you want to harvest. So our competition is not coming through speed, it will come through availability of resources. So whilst the growers today cannot find these resources, they will have something that is a robot that they know it's going to be available, it will be a difference at the end of day in harvesting the crop or having a big loss that might close the company in one year or two. 


But also the other interesting thing in discussions with growers is even when they manage to find harvesters these numbers, the number of repeaters have been reducing over time, and in the past these used to be around 80%, today it's lower than 50%, which means there is more time to train the harvesters, there is more waste being produced, and a lot of crop being captured or being harvested that will become waste when it could be, in fact, revenue for the grower.


And this will have a big impact on the line too to the consumer as well. So I think at the end of day where we are, where we should compare ourselves with humans, is on cost of harvesting, on a pounds per kilo basis, and also on the quality. So we can assure the grower that not only will they harvest their crop, as the crop that is going to be harvested will have the right quality to be sold in the supermarkets, and we are reducing their wastage and improving their upside.


Tim Mordan

OK, that's really interesting. Thank you. And you mentioned other countries having similar sorts of challenges, as we do here in the UK. And there's a perception from some growers I speak to that countries around the world are way ahead of us and we're lagging behind and they've all got robots all over the place, and all we've got to do is actually go over there and buy them and bring them back here, and the labour problem is partly solved. I guess that's probably not quite right.


Rui Andrês

Well, I don't know exactly which technologies the growers are talking about. One of the things we have seen is, for example, some misleading [information] on what is available on the market. So if you're looking at harvesting raspberries, you have some automated harvesters. Now the question is, these automated harvesters will damage the fruit, so you can't sell it to supermarkets. You can sell it for jams, for frozen fruits and all of that. But if you compare the farm gate price of these fruits compared with fruits that are sold to the supermarkets, then many times you are talking about a multiple of difference. So where we are focusing ourselves is not on the mass market where it doesn't matter the shape of the fruit, where we are focusing is on the prime fruit that is sold on the shelves of the supermarket, fresh, that will attract a better price for the grower and for the supermarket as well.


Tim Mordan

Okay, thank you. And what were the key obstacles and barriers you faced as you developed this technology?


Rui Andrês

Well, one of the first ones was, the company has been set up in Plymouth, and whilst Plymouth is a very attractive place and very beautiful, it was really hard to attract people to work in Plymouth. So luckily, I was in Cambridge. Cambridge is a really nice hub for technology development, so we brought the company from Plymouth to Cambridge, and we started recruiting staff. One of the biggest challenges has been around the availability of robotics and machine learning engineers because in that market, we are competing with the likes of Amazon and other large corporates, where we don't have the capacity to pay exactly the same salaries. So we need to compete on things like culture, environment, purpose as well. And luckily we have been able to attract really good people.


I would say the second one is funding, always, and the funding comes in two parts: one is funding for innovation, which luckily we have been able to to have access to some funding that has been allowing us to develop a lot of new technology that is innovative; on the other side is private funding, where the perception of the funders doesn't seem to be aligned with the needs of the grower. So many times we are looking to funders that are seeking a beautiful product, and on the other side, we have the growers that are telling us, I don't need nothing beautiful, I need something that works, and I need something that works on cost and that is able to harvest with quality. 


So one of the biggest challenges when we show our robots to a potential funder and when we know that there are other competitors speaking, many times there is a willingness to fund the beautiful rather than what works within cost and quality. So that has been one of the challenges we have seen. I think it will come with risk, I've seen that in other markets, when I was on the investment side. People tend to look into the 'look like' rather than the 'work like'. But what I like to do is to compare ourselves with the likes of John Deere, where when John Deere entered into the tractor business, they had the Waterboys [Waterloo Boy], and the Waterboys was a very ugly tractor, but it worked. And today, with time and money, they have very beautiful products. So what I want to have is something that is in the field working, satisfying the needs of the growers. And then over time, we will look into how to make it pretty. We are not looking into investors that are looking just for the pretty. We want investors that are looking to what's functional, what can deliver what the grower wants, and not speed and pretty.


Tim Mordan

Okay, well, that's an interesting aspect that we hadn't appreciated really. We were talking about finance there. I was just going to mention about a couple of government initiatives that we've got on the go at the moment, and I was just going to ask a couple of follow up questions. The first is something called the Farming Innovation Pathways. This sits alongside [UK Research and Innovation] UKRI's programme, but it's very much in partnership with Defra, my department, and the aim of this is finding a way to encourage farm-focused research and development that helps productivity, environmental sustainability and general resilience.


And we had a fantastic response to this competition, as we do with most of these competitions, with hundreds of really good applications submitted right across agriculture and horticulture areas. And unfortunately we could only select 50, but I was just going to mention a couple of these, a few of these projects that we chose. One was a project coupling automation and artificial intelligence to develop a test and fruit scouting robot in horticulture systems. There was another one which was a project to harvest green ammonia from pig waste to produce new clean hydrogen-based fuels. And then there was another one that caught my eye, which was a project that aims to improve the quality of supply of native trees and hedgerow seeds, so they could reduce the need to import young trees, and this helps with the government's ambitious tree-planting schemes.


So, you know, we've got some really good projects going on as part of that funding round. And then, more recently, we've launched something called the Farming Innovation Programme and this this is a new farmer-led thoughtful funding programme for research and development, and the emphasis here is really on trying to get more, so bottom-up from the farmers and growers, ideas about what they really need to boost innovation, to improve productivity, help the environment, increase prosperity and so on, right across agriculture and horticulture. 


So this programme is also very much interested in supporting knowledge exchange because I suspect you're aware, Rui, that one of the things that we don't do so well in this country, perhaps that some other countries do do well, is that knowledge exchange. So we put quite a lot of money into research and development, and innovation and things like that, but we're not always as good at getting it into the marketplace, into the fields. So we're really having an emphasis on that, and again, that competition opened on 20 October, we've had a great response and we're processing those applications at the moment. So obviously I can't say more about those projects at the moment, and there's more down the track as well, we've got a whole rhythm of competitions coming out under this banner of the Farming Innovation Programme. So I'm sure you'll be watching avidly for those to see if you can apply for more help in your projects. 


You are benefiting from that government money, what would your advice be to any business, farmer or grower who's thinking about getting into innovation and is looking around for help and support?

Rui Andrês

Yes. Well, thank you for mentioning the FIP [Farming Innovation Programme]. We have put some applications in, so fingers crossed...

Tim Mordan

I thought you would.


Rui Andrês

...and looking forward to know if we're able to finance some of the initiatives we are trying to expand into. But I would say from the farmer's point of view and from discussions we had with farmers, everybody tries to get their own edge and be ahead of the game. But there is one point where working together might benefit the entire industry rather than trying to work separately. Luckily, we have been able to collaborate with growers that are very open and they have had great discussions with myself, my team, and they have been very open and that allows us to develop things quicker and to align our developments to their needs. 

So I would say, open innovation would be something really good to see more growers open to to do. Also, if you are interested and want to have discussions with us, we do work with other companies, please get in touch and have a discussion with us. We like to have open forums where we basically have open discussions and we try to understand not only today's problems, but also problems of the future, because as a company, we will serve the current needs, but also future needs. We will keep aiming at developing things for growers. 


If you are a company trying to enter into this space, what I would say is, guarantee you have the right partners with you to try to help you. If you do something that is not aligned with needs, then the question is why are you spending time and money doing something that might not go to the market. But if you find the right partners, then just try to do it as quick as we can in a low budget until you have customers, and once you have customers, then run as fast as you can and commercialise the technology.


Tim Mordan

OK, thank you. And it's a really exciting project. You know, farming and growing can have the wrong perception as a rather difficult, dirty and unexciting career choice. But in fact, it's absolutely the opposite, and the stuff that you're doing is tremendously exciting and there's thousands of similar projects and initiatives going on up and down the country. So, to what extent do you think the kind of work that you're doing will make farming and horticulture a more attractive proposition for school leavers?


Rui Andrês

Yes, I always like to... Well, there is a quote from Bill Gates on what's the impact of computers on humanity? And he replies, saying that computers will release people to do more interesting jobs. So I see robotics exactly in the same sense. I think there will be a lot of what is called today low-skilled jobs being converted into higher skilled jobs, and basically people that will be today working in planting, in doing different jobs on the agriculture, that at some point will start operating robots, doing maintenance of these robots, taking the robots from one side to the other. I think there is a whole range of new jobs that will be created by these opportunities. And one of the interesting things is once again looking to the tractors. Before tractors, you had loads of people working in the field; today people are not, well, the unemployment rate hasn't exploded, and you have people that are specialised in operating tractors. So basically what you do is you change the skills of people and you create availability for higher skilled jobs.


Tim Mordan

Okay, great, thanks very much. And finally, Rui, what do you think horticulture is going to look like in, say, 10 years' time? Apart from covered in your robots in polytunnels everywhere.

Rui Andrês

Well, 10 years, I don't know, is a short range. One of the long-term views I have and that I make inside the company is a parallel with automotive manufacturing, where if you look into 1910 to 1930, basically you have assembly lines completely manual. And over time, you start seeing robots overtaking some of these tasks and making these manufacturing plants much more efficient. And they will reduce the costs of the car so everybody can have a car. My view for the horticulture industry is similar, in the sense that if you look today, most of the work in greenhouses and polytunnels is manual. 

There isn't a lot of automation around. But over time, what I would like to see is robots starting overtaking, well, not overtaking, because at the moment there is a lack of harvesters and the UK alone is like 90,000 harvesters. So you'll start seeing these gaps being filled by robots. And then over time, you'll see some of these harvesters being converted into operators of robots and operating in the value chain of the robotics space in horticulture. And ideally one of the things I would like to see is the wastage of greenhouses and polytunnels coming down and the price of food being sustainable so everybody can afford to buy soft fruits and all different kinds of fruits.


Tim Mordan

OK. Rui Andrés, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you ever so much for spending the time to be with us today, and we do wish you all the very best of success in this exciting venture.

Rui Andrês

Thank you very much, Tim. It has been a pleasure.

Tim Mordan

So that was Rui Andrês, and if you want more information about anything you've heard today or indeed other aspects of how farming is changing, then I suggest you look on the Future Farming blog []. Thank you.