The future of the UK asparagus industry is threatened by a shortage of pickers. Agri-tech start-up Muddy Machines has developed an automated harvesting platform capable of distinguishing between spears that are ready to be harvested and those that are not, even under challenging field conditions, and uses an automated gripper arm to accurately cut the asparagus and place it in a container. It can also predict yields, thereby increasing the profitability of the grower.
Florian Richter, Founder and CEO of Muddy Machines, presented in the Start-Up Showcase at Agri-TechE’s REAP conference. He has been working closely with John Chinn of Cobrey Farms, producers of over half of asparagus grown in the UK.
Florian comments: “Asparagus spears can grow 16cm in a single day with plenty of sun – that means you have to walk the field every day, with a team of pickers behind the tractor, for the whole three-month harvesting season. Timing is important.”
Asparagus is frequently harvested by a team of ten people walking behind a row of collection boxes mounted on a tractor. A shortfall of just 10 pickers across the harvest season can result in £250,000 of asparagus spears left in the ground.
John Chinn comments: “If we cannot automate the asparagus harvest then I predict that within a few years all asparagus consumed in the UK will be imported from South America and Eastern Europe.”
Automating asparagus is challenging because the spears are very close to one another, weeds grow close to the spears.
Florian says: “Our robot is able to identify and distinguish asparagus spears from weeds, as well as identifying individual spears close to one another, grabbing and cutting the spear with a robotic arm. The next step is to improve the pick speed and the effective up-time in the field.
“The plan is to crack harvest automation for several selectively harvested crops – we are also working on tenderstem broccoli – and then we want to add some additional labour-intensive services like weeding.”
In addition to the sophisticated hardware, Muddy Machines is also an AI and data company.
“As the automated harvester does its job, it also collects data on the emerging spears, which allows the grower to predict yields in advance. That allows the grower to coordinate storage and distribution in order to ride the wholesale market a lot better,” continues Florian. “Our partners tell us that wholesale asparagus prices can double or triple depending on market supply – if harvest can be predicted these price swings can be exploited. This is a very immediate benefit from the data.
“We’ve already had our first commercial order. We’re now targeting to be in the field next year with several machines offering harvesting as a service so they can be continually upgraded as new capabilities emerge. We’re currently raising a seed financing round in order to execute that.”