Agtech: How robotics could dig farmers out of Brexit hole

Agtech: How robotics could dig farmers out of Brexit hole

Malek Murison looks at the challenges facing the UK’s agriculture sector, post Brexit, and hears why two robotics and automation experts see the lie of the land as a technology opportunity.

With Brexit looming and no clarity about what form the UK’s future trading relationship with Europe will take, local agriculture is facing uncertain times.

Aside from the prospect of rising export tariffs, two things are looking increasingly likely. First, UK agriculture will have to fill the funding void left by departure from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

And second, Customs Union membership aside, the countless UK farms that are reliant on seasonal workers from the EU could struggle to source labour following the implementation of stricter immigration policies.

Yet as bleak as that outlook may seem, Brexit could also be an opportunity.

The UK government has promised to match EU agricultural subsidies until 2020 – to the tune of billions of pounds a year – giving the sector a brief grace period, at least, to make the transition. And labour shortages could, in theory, be solved by an influx of domestic workers.

However, most likely is that the predicament will give UK farmers the opportunity to move to the forefront of automation and robotics, at a time when both technology sets are beginning to prove their worth.

However Brexit unfolds in the long run, one thing is clear. For UK agriculture to thrive in the coming period of uncertainty and disruption, the industry is in dire need of innovation, investment, and a productivity boost. Overall UK productivity has been flatlining since before the EU referendum even existed.

Speaking with Internet of BusinessTom Canning, VP of IoT and devices at software company Canonical, and Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of agtech startup Small Robot Company, share their thoughts on the impact of Brexit, how agriculture will have to adapt, and the role that robots could play in the future of UK farming.

Small Robot Company is currently using Canonical’s Ubuntu open-source software to build robots capable of providing care for individual plants, while using fewer chemicals and energy.

Brexit: a catalyst for positive change?

The post-Brexit environment could be a brutal one for the UK’s farmers. But it’s in challenging times that innovation is forced, rather than cultivated, according to Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder of Small Robot Company, which describes itself as being about “UX for AI”.

Forced innovation may not be a bad thing. It makes room for radical changes, such as government plans to replace current subsidies with a scheme that provides funding based on environmental efforts, rather than just land ownership.

“Brexit has allowed Britain to consider supporting its farmers in a way that is more suited to British farmers and the British countryside,” he says.

However, Scott-Robinson adds, with many UK farms reliant on the current subsidy model to stay afloat, the bottom line is unavoidable: “If the total subsidies are to be enough to avoid a large number of farms going out of business, there will have to be a huge increase in the range and scale of those schemes,” he says.

“There are promises to match lost European funding and to increase the budget to Innovate UK. This will certainly help the development of innovative precision-farming startups that can improve productivity and sustainability.”

Beyond the numbers, there are also concerns over whether the UK has the infrastructure in place to support budding agtech startups.

“The UK does not have the same sort of ecosystem of private investment for supporting agritech in the way as the US or even Europe. Also, we do not have many big UK-based companies to acquire these startups. So if a startup is successful, then there is a risk the company will be sold to a foreign company.”

In a perfect possible future, Brexit will be the catalyst for a UK farming revolution. “With the right policies, and more importantly, the right implementation, British farmers could be catapulted to the cutting edge of sustainable, efficient food production,” he says.

The growing role of robotics

UK farming’s productivity boost needs to come from somewhere. The solution could lie in robotics and smart software applications. Tom Canning, VP of Devices and IoT at Canonical, highlights the link between productivity and profit, suggesting that smart farming robots could help to fill the fill the labour gap and maximise output.

When the ink on the Brexit divorce papers finally dries, the agriculture industry faces the prospect of staring at a large human-shaped hole in its workforce,” he explains.

“It may then pull out its wallet to find it considerably lighter than previously. Add in the difficulty of seasonal recruitment for busy periods, and farmers – and indeed the industry – will need a contingency to combat potential loss of earnings.”

This, he says, is where robots and smart software could enter the picture. “Smart farming robots can maximise crop yields through their superior efficiency, both optimising productivity and profits for farmers. In a post-Brexit trading environment, increased productivity will be vital to help farmers survive possible export tariffs, ranging from 42 to 87 percent.”

However, farming robots should be seen as supplementary, rather than as an outright replacement for human workers, he says.

“The thought of robots in farming shouldn’t be misinterpreted as fleets of machines replacing human jobs. Instead, smart robots will complement humans in the field and remove menial, time-consuming tasks from farmers, freeing up their time to add value other processes.”

Farming as a service

However, for seasonal agriculture businesses, any transition that involves ploughing funds into hardware with high upfront costs is going to be uncomfortable, to say the least.

Canning suggests that this predicament could lead to a more flexible ownership model among UK farmers, with independent Farming as a Service (FAAS) providers, or farmers with equipment to spare offering hardware on demand.

In the near future, he says, “We could start to see farming equipment that previously sat idle in barns for most of the year being leased out to other farms. FAAS would create innovative funding models, whereby farmers rent and lease equipment, including smart robots, on demand, leading to a flexible ownership model.”

There are two obvious benefits in this. First, on-demand’s flexibility means that UK farmers could counter the loss of migrant labour during busy periods.

“In this instance,” says Canning, “FAAS could help pick up some of the slack as farmers rent the necessary equipment to fill the gaps in its workforce, and lease their own equipment when there’s a trough in demand.”

And second, the model would also provide farms of all sizes with a way to test out new techniques, before implementing them into day-to-day operations.

“FAAS would allow these farmers to trial solutions before committing costly investments into equipment that may not yield results. They can use new data insights to get a consolidated view of their farm at a lower cost, compared to if they bought the equipment outright.”

Internet of Business says

There’s little doubt that Brexit poses significant challenges to UK farmers. Budget cuts, new funding models, likely tariffs with EU trading partners, and a sharp reduction in the labour force could all hit the agriculture industry hard.

But agriculture will have to find a way. As Canning puts it, “As Britain embarks on a new era economically, one of its oldest industries will be dragged along with it.”

“With the aid of advanced technology and robotics, Brexit could give rise to a new generation of farmers as the financial barriers to entry are lowered with FAAS, and new innovative agri-tech start-ups could begin to flower in the post-Brexit climate,” he says.