UK telco BT is among a group of companies that are paving the way for robots down on the farm.

The group is called Robot Highways, and is backed by the government’s Innovate UK fund. It is led by Saga Robotics, which has developed a multi-functional farming robot called Thorvald. BT’s role within Robot Highways is to provide a cloud-based robot management platform and edge infrastructure that can coordinate and automate a range of farming processes.

The group this week showed off their progress with a demonstration of Thorvald picking and packing soft fruit, and treating crops to control common pests and diseases. The robots are powered from renewable sources too, contributing to the agriculture sector’s effort to go carbon neutral by 2040.

“We’re delighted to be part of the Robot Highways project to demonstrate how BT can help the agricultural sector to automate by integrating robotics and other solutions on a single platform,” said John Davies, chief researcher at BT, in a statement on Tuesday. “As a leader in network-based platforms and edge-infrastructure we are ideally placed to support advanced robotic farming operations.”

Showing off a robot that can pick and pack a raspberry is about more than just the perfect punnet. Agriculture, more than most sectors, is under pressure to do more with less. The UN says the world needs to produce 60 percent more food by 2050 to feed an expected population of around 9.3 billion.

Today though, the UK’s food and farming sectors are struggling with labour shortages. A report earlier this year by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee found that there were 500,000 food and farming-related job vacancies in 2021. According to the government’s most recent report on UK agriculture, the total labour force on farms in 2021 was down 1 percent year-on-year to 467,000.

When it comes to output – and by extension profitability – it is at the mercy of weather that is becoming increasingly extreme, and diseases that can decimate crops and livestock. The term feast or famine doesn’t just apply to crop yields: in the UK last year, while 28 percent of farms made a net profit of more than £50,000, 16 percent didn’t make any money at all.

Technology is seen as having a critical role to play in improving production and reducing costs and waste. A forecast a couple of years ago by Juniper Research predicted that the global agtech market will be worth $22.5 billion by 2025, compared to $9 billion in 2020. 67 percent of that value is attributable to monitoring sensors that provide farmers with a constant flow of data enabling them to maximise yields. Juniper expects 436 million agriculture sensors will be in use by 2025, up from 170 million in 2020.

Robots are also expected to perform a variety of roles, not just Saga’s harvesting robot, but also seed-sowing and weeding robots. As this BT example demonstrates, telcos have an important connectivity role to play here.

“We’re welcoming BT’s interest and support to help provide solutions that advance agricultural robotics in the UK,” said Anne Dingstad, CEO of Saga Robotics, in a statement. “Connectivity plays a key part to advance automation and precision agriculture and to enable increased food production with less resources.”

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