University spinout company to begin development of a new cauliflower-harvesting robot

A cauliflower harvesting robot is in development at a University of Plymouth spinout company following the announcement of a new collaboration with one of the world’s leading vegetable producers.

Fieldwork Robotics is to work with Bonduelle Group for the next three years to create a prototype that will be ready for commercial manufacture.

It is the second application of Fieldwork’s flexible and patented agricultural robot technology to gain food industry backing. It has already made strong progress with a raspberry harvesting robot in collaboration with Hall Hunter Partnership, one of the UK’s biggest soft fruit producers. It is also working with Bosch to optimise the software and design of the robot arms.

Fieldwork will initially work on the detection and soft robotics technology with a view to an early-stage prototype during year two. Bonduelle, which operates in more than 100 countries and generates annual revenues of approximately €2.8 billion a year, will provide access to fields, vegetable know-how and harvesting conditions.

Significant progress has already been made on the cauliflower technology thanks to earlier work as part of Agri-Tech Cornwall, an initiative part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund with match-funding from Cornwall Council. Company co-founder Dr Martin Stoelen, Lecturer in Robotics at the University of Plymouth and Associate Professor at the Western Norway University of Applied Science, has also worked on tomato harvesting technology.

Rui Andres, Fieldwork Robotics Chief Executive Officer, said,

“We have already enjoyed significant progress through our collaboration with Hall Hunter Partnership on the raspberry-harvesting version of the technology. The agreement with Bonduelle to collaborate on developing a second iteration of Fieldwork’s agricultural robots is a strong validation of the technology. We are very much looking forward to working with them to develop an effective system to harvest cauliflowers.”

Fieldwork successfully raised £298,000 in January 2020 to accelerate development and scale-up of the technology. It has also been supported by a £547,250 Innovate UK grant as part of a £671,484 project to develop a multi-armed robot prototype. Other partners in the project include the University and the National Physical Laboratory.

Claudine Lambert, Group Agronomy Director, Bonduelle Prospective & Development, said,

“Bonduelle has a strong commitment to sustainable and diversified agriculture in all of the territories where we operate globally. New technologies can play an important part in meeting that commitment, so we are delighted to be collaborating with Fieldwork Robotics and excited by the potential of its agricultural robots.”

Neil Crabb, Chief Executive Officer of Frontier IP, the University’s IP partner, said,

“Industrial validation is at the heart of what we do at Frontier IP, and so we are delighted with this announcement. It is Fieldwork’s third industrial collaboration following the recent announcement of its partnership with Bosch and the longer-term relationship with Hall Hunter.”

Fieldwork Robotics is one of a number of spinout companies to have incorporated world-class research and attracted significant commercial investment. Others include biomedical companies The Vaccine Group and Amprologix Limited, photovoltaic and green energy company Pulsiv Solar, and water/bacterial testing specialists Molendotech.

Fieldwork Robotics was incorporated to develop and commercialise the work of Lecturer in Robotics Dr Martin Stoelen, who also leads the Soft and Adaptive Robotics lab in the School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics.

Initially, Fieldwork is focusing on developing robots to harvest raspberries, which are more delicate and easily damaged than other soft fruits, and grow on bushes with complex foliage and berry distribution.

Fieldwork is also developing proof-of-concept robots for other crops – including cauliflowers and tomatoes – following interest from leading multinational agribusinesses.

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