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Robot cauliflower harvesters to replace vanishing migrants

UK's bouncing-bomb lab develops key veg-scanner tech

Bridging the IT gap between rising business demands and ageing tools

UK government boffins have announced that they will develop a sophisticated new infravision system, intended to let robotic machinery harvest cauliflowers and lettuces. With the migrant labourers who normally do this deserting Blighty's shores in droves, droid harvesters are seen as the only way to prevent crops rotting in the fields and soaring veg prices in the shops.

According to the scientists of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) - whose predecessors developed the bouncing bomb of Dambusters fame, and apparently more or less invented the internet as well* - the need for mechanoid farm machinery is clear:

Annual waste for certain crops can be up to 60% - which can mean up to £100,000 of lost revenue for an average farm every year, according to farmers who were consulted during research. Falling numbers of migrant labourers means that healthy crops cannot be gathered and so farms are losing crops due to harvesting at the wrong time.

Apparently, industry has no problem producing robots physically capable of pulling lettuces, cauliflowers and so forth out of the ground and despatching them onward toward the veg counter. The difficulty is that these kinds of crops in particular are shrouded in large quantities of extraneous vegetation and the robots can't tell which ones are ready for plucking. This led baffled engineers at agromech firms KMS Projects and Vegetable Harvesting Systems (VHS) to call in the NPL.

According to the government boffins, a suitable infravision through-leaves scanner should be quite feasible. They say that the most suitable parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are radio frequencies, microwaves, terahertz and the far-infra red.

"The farming industry does not have access to equipment or the skills required to operate in these parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, few places do," says NPL's Dr Richard Dudley.

"That is why KMS Projects and VHS came to NPL to utilise the world class expertise and equipment that we have on site... to develop a unique new automated harvesting machine that will dramatically improve productivity in the UK and global farming industry and ultimately benefit consumers through cheaper food in the supermarkets."

Apparently a microwave cauliflower-scanner has already been demonstrated, and Dudley figures to have a completed robo-harvester in action as soon as next year. ®

Bootnote

*According to the NPL (pdf page 7):

"The first practical networks using packet switching were introduced to the NPL local network, and by the early 1970s this was providing a range of on-line services to some 200 users. This demonstration provided a much needed steer to the development of the [US] Arpanet, which would evolve into the Internet we know today."

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