Lincoln to launch world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training in Agri-Food Robotics

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A new advanced training centre in agri-food robotics will create the largest ever cohort of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) specialists for the global food and farming sectors, thanks to a multi-million pound funding award.

The world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics is being established by the University of Lincoln, UK, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded £6.6m for the new Centre which will see a massive influx of high-level robotics expertise at a vital time for the agri-food industry.

The CDT will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, who will be supported by major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.

Professor Tom Duckett, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln, is the new Centre Director. He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade.

“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.

“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.

“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering those expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”

At Lincoln, the CDT represents an important partnership between robotics researchers from the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) and agricultural experts from the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT), as they work together to combat these pressing issues facing the global food chain.

Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, Professor Simon Pearson, said: “It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, but there is still a major skills gap in this area. Working with our industry and academic partners to design the 50 PhD scholarships will enable us to expand the UK’s science and engineering base, delivering a flood of skills and expertise that will drive our food and farming industries into the future.”

The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, located at the heart of UK agri-food business, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders from across the food, farming and robotics industries. These include John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

It is one of 75 new CDTs to be funded by the EPSRC (part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in what is hailed as one of the country’s most significant investments in research skills, designed to equip the UK with the next generation of doctoral level researchers it needs across the breadth of the engineering and physical sciences landscape.

UKRI’s Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, said: “Highly talented people are required to tackle key global challenges such as sustainable energy and cyber security, and provide leadership across industries and our public services. Centres for Doctoral Training provide them with the support, tools and training they need to succeed, and the involvement of 1,400 project partners underlines how much industry and the charity sector value this approach.”

Dave Ross, CEO of the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (one of four Agri-Tech centres established by the UK government), said: “This exciting project has strong synergies with our existing academic partners and will help greatly in the development of advanced robotic and engineering technologies for the agri-food sector.

“Our consultation with industry continuously indicates that there is a critical shortage of highly trained robotics and autonomous system engineers to meet future anticipated demand. The PhDs resulting from this project will have a significant impact. We look forward to connecting the students with our wider industry and academic partners for mutual benefit.”

In the new CDT in Agri-Food Robotics, all 50 students will follow a common foundational year, studying on the new MSc Robotics and Autonomous Systems at the University of Lincoln. Then 20 of the students will carry out their PhD studies at Lincoln, 20 at Cambridge, and 10 at UEA. The wide-scale engagement with industry will enable the students’ research to be pushed rapidly towards real-world applications in the agri-food industry.

Dr Fumiya Iida, Reader in Robotics at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, is the Centre’s Deputy Director. He said: “Agri-Food Robotics is an ideal research area where high-impact scientific challenges and industrial needs meet.

“On the one hand, many real-world problems in the industry such as manual handling of crops and reliable recognition of food are still regarded as considerable scientific challenges that the world-leading experts are intensively investigating today. On the other, the solutions to these problems will impact the competitiveness of UK Agri-Food businesses.”

Professor Richard Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at UEA, added: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?

“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming. At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking.

“This is blue skies research with an East of England flavour and we look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”