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Marion Regan from Hugh Lowe Farms on commercial robotic harvesting

“This kind of technology has been a long time coming"

Hugh Lowe Farms grows around 5,000 tonnes of strawberries, and 1,000 tonnes of raspberries and blackberries in Kent, England. As well as being one of the main UK soft fruit growers, Hugh Lowe Farms is also at the forefront of trialing commercial robotic harvesting.

"Availability and cost of labor has always been an issue for soft fruit growers, so we have been working with Dogtooth Technologies since they were founded around eight years ago," said Marion Regan, Managing Director at Hugh Lowe Farms. "Recently, Dogtooth robots have been working here on a commercial basis."

The Dogtooth robot's main focus is on harvesting strawberries, while trials are being done on other fruit.

"Dogtooth have focussed on harvesting but can also look at functions such as crop predictions. At the moment they can harvest for 16 hours per day, working through the night, the heat of the day is not the optimum time to pick fruit and nighttime is not optimum for human pickers.

"It is very challenging to get enough people to pick the fruit and the quality and speed of people's ability can vary, while the robot is programmed to pick the fruit to the specifications and put it in the right boxes according to the orders. We have seen that Dogtooth can be competitive on the cost of picking, while its speed is comparable to the lower end of human productivity.

"We highly value our human pickers, some of whom are very skilled and there will always be a need for them, but we can deploy a fleet of robots with fewer operators and redeploy our labor elsewhere."

Large investment?
Robots can be a large investment for companies, so Dogtooth offers picking as a service, with a per kilo charge, aimed to be comparable to the cost of manual harvesting.

"However, the eventual business model is to sell robots to growers so they can control their own harvest. Growers will then pay a software subscription to receive updates. Dogtooth robots have been value engineered from the start, the aim has always been for the robot to be good value for money."

There is no need to plant special varieties to accommodate the robot, as long as the varieties have good crop display. It is very different to mechanical harvesting, which needs particular varieties to make harvesting by machine possible. With Dogtooth, what is good for people to harvest, is good for the robots.

"The commercial trials at Hugh Lowe Farms have been going for two years on a block of more than a hectare. We have our regular picking teams and the robot picking team, all treated the same with regard to orders and quality control systems. We also have an Australian berry business, Burlington Berries, trialing Dogtooth robots in Tasmania, and this enables us to gather data all year round.

"This kind of technology has been a long time coming, and there is still a lot of learning to be done. I can see it being a significant part of the solution to the shortage and rising cost of labor. We are also looking at sustainable battery technologies and using farm-generated solar power. It is only through best practice and openness to innovation that we can tackle rising costs."

For more information:
Marion Regan
Hugh Lowe Farms
Tel: +44(0)1622 812229
[email protected]