The viticulture sector is set to become the latest industry to benefit from the introduction of cutting-edge virtual reality (VR) robotics technology, thanks to a new innovation programme funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
Despite a relatively small number of vineyards (there are little more than 900 vineyards in the UK covering a combined area of around 10,000 acres), viticulture – or “winegrowing” – is the UK’s fastest-growing agricultural sector. Changes in weather and seasonal temperatures have driven production, with exports predicted to be worth as much as £350m by 2040.
Exploring new ways to modernise different agricultural practices is the Farming Innovation Programme, which is funded by DEFRA and delivered in partnership with Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency. As part of the Farming Futures Automation and Robotics competition, grant funding was awarded to 19 successful projects, announced by Ministers during presentations at the recent Worldwide Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London.
One of the successful projects will be delivered by Extend Robotics, a tech startup combining consumer VR technology, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to make it easier for people and machines to work together in perfect harmony.
The project, titled ‘Integrated Human-Augmented Robotics and Intelligent Sensing Platform for Precision Viticulture’ is a collaboration between Extend Robotics, Queen Mary University of London and Saffron Grange, an established leading producer of Premium Sparkling Wine in East Anglia. Their combined expertise aims to develop AI-based solutions to enable the robotic automation of tasks such as pruning and harvesting.
With a well-publicised shortage of seasonal workers affecting horticulture which contains viticulture, the fastest growing sector in the UK, the project aims to reduce reliance on this form of manual labour. This will reduce labour costs, while cutting emissions and the environmental impact of existing approaches.
Ultimately, they intend for the research project to significantly improve the productivity and sustainability of the UK viticulture industry. This will contribute to the growth of the UK economy and provide the UK a competitive edge in the global market.
Founder and CEO of Extend Robotics, Dr Chang Liu explains:
“The viticulture industry in the UK may well be over 1,000 years old, but it has continually moved with the times. This is simply an exciting continuation of that progress.
“Our technology will allow growers to remotely monitor crop health, identify potential issues early on, and take appropriate action. Using AI, they will then be able to automate general tasks and improve the efficiency of their operations over time, resulting in better overall crop quality and higher yields.”
“We’re going to change the face – and future – of viticulture in the UK.”