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Halvard Grimstad grew up on a farm in Norway and holds a MSc in Mechanical Engineering from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences where he got involved with the early stages of field testing the Thorvald platform, an autonomous and modular robot for agriculture. Halvard has since been a key person in setting up Saga Robotics Ltd in the UK where he sat as COO before moving back to Norway where he now sits as Head of Deployment, looking after the commercial operations of the Thorvald robots in the UK, US, Norway and Italy. Halvard also sits on the advisory board for the AgriForwards Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) which is a collaboration between the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, that focuses on robotics within the agricultural sector.
One business success
- The success of Saga Robotics thus far has everything to do with the agricultural robot Thorvald which was first developed at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in 2014. Saga Robotics was subsequently established and the company continued the development of Thorvald in both Norway and the UK, committed to delivering autonomous services for the soft-fruit horticultural industry, combining a robust mechanical design with intelligent and reliable autonomy. The Thorvald platform has subsequently gone through multiple iterations and has become the backbone of Saga Robotics’ operation. The robots are now used at commercial farms, providing autonomous crop protection of strawberries and vineyards, significantly reducing the number of chemicals used on the farms through the utilisation of UVC light as a chemical-free treatment of powdery mildew. The platform has a proven track record of world-leading autonomous navigation in challenging agricultural environments, with more than 10,000 km autonomously driven. The modularity of the robot has enabled it to be used for a vast array of different applications, such as strawberry harvesting, data collection, weeding and much more. Thorvald has become a well-known name within the agricultural robotics community and has become the platform of choice for universities and companies working within the sector around the globe, with Thorvald robots being used in seven countries on multiple continents.
Two challenges for the sector
- Seasonal Workers - UK horticulture relies heavily on foreign seasonal labour which is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. The shortage of seasonal workers is related to multiple factors such as political decisions and world events (Brexit, War in Ukraine etc.). A report published in 2020 by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee stated the following: “Possibly uniquely within the UK economy, the edible horticulture harvesting workforce is estimated to be almost entirely (99%) overseas labour”. In 2021, Ukrainians accounted for 67% of the 30,000 seasonal-work visas issued, and even then nearly 8,000 tonnes of soft fruit produced rotted due to lack of pickers. This severe lack of labour often leads to fruit suppliers leaving produce to rot in the fields, and with no immediate solution in sight, there are concerns that fruit producers could down-scale their operations or end up moving their production overseas.
- Sustainability - The agricultural sector currently relies on a number of different chemicals and biologicals to protect their crop from pests, but there are many good reasons for farmers to cut down on their use of chemical sprays going forwards. On 22 June 2022, the European Commission adopted a proposal which included targets to reduce the use and risk of pesticides by 2030, where replacing the chemical pesticides with safe alternatives would be one of the legally binding measures. This would be a part of a wider effort to help reduce the environmental footprint of the European Union’s food system and to help mitigate the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Similar regulations might be seen in the UK as there are experts within the UK that are calling for the British government to follow the EU’s example.
Three forecasts for the sector
- Labour Shortage - The horticulture sector’s dependency on foreign seasonal labour poses an existential threat that needs to be addressed with viable solutions. There have been efforts made to employ British people through schemes such as Pick for Britain in 2020, but this was subsequently scrapped in 2021 due to the lack of uptake. Technological developments, and especially robotics have been identified as a potential path for reducing the farm's dependency on foreign labour. It will however take time before robots are able to significantly impact the need for seasonal labour. Robots will become more common on farms going forward, and there will most likely be a gradual shift to automation taking place over the coming years, but there need to be ways for farmers to acquire the necessary workforce in the meantime.
- Climate change - 10% of UK’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the agricultural sector, and the sector itself is one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as changing temperatures and extreme weather can have detrimental effects on food production. It is imperative that the agricultural sector strive towards reduction of climate gas emissions, as well as developing and implementing new technologies to mitigate the effects of climate change. Robotics can play a vital role in making farms more sustainable by revolutionising crop protection through UVC treatment and precision spraying, performing a continuous data collection to make informed decisions while at the same time reducing farm CO2 emissions through the use of electrically powered robots. All of this and more is currently being developed and trialled at commercial farms in the Innovate UK flagship project Robot Highways' where Saga Robotics, together with partners such as University of Lincoln and Berry Gardens Growers, are developing and implementing new technologies for a more efficient and resilient soft fruit farm.
- Regulation - Technologies such as robotics and automation are showing great promise within agriculture, and we believe it will play a vital part in the success of the sector. The closer we get to the large-scale adaptation of robotics, the more important it is that the regulatory framework is made clear and able to accommodate these emerging technologies. With the work we are doing on the writing party of the new BS 8646, "Use of Crop Robots in Agriculture and Horticulture”, as well as our collaboration with the HSE on their working party into highly automated agricultural machinery, we believe that the UK has the potential to be a world leader in commercialised agricultural robotics going forwards.