A robotic solution to horticultural labour shortages is being developed to help secure the availability of the UK’s favourite salad veg – the lettuce.
Agri-tech experts have joined forces with two of the UK’s largest lettuce growers, G’s Fresh and PDM Produce, to develop a robotic solution to automate lettuce harvesting.
Whole head, or iceberg, lettuce is the UK’s most valuable field vegetable crop. Around 99,000 tonnes were harvested in the UK in 2019 with a market value of £178m.
But access to reliable seasonal labour has been an increasing problem, exacerbated by Brexit and Covid-19 restrictions.
Early indications are that a commercial robotic solution could reduce lettuce harvesting labour requirements by around 50%.
Thom Graham, vegetable specialist at lead project partner Grimme, said a big challenge facing the sector was sourcing sufficient labour to conduct their harvest commitments in a timely manner.
"In addition, rising cost of labour with no increase in retail price has squeezed margins," he added.
"Growers are looking at solutions that can reduce labour input costs and maintain their resilience in the sector and we hope our expertise can help.”
Dermot Tobin, managing director of farming at PDM, said for many decades the grower had relied on seasonal labour for harvesting lettuce, but sourcing labour was now getting challenging.
"Our industry needs to embrace robotic technology to reduce our reliance on labour so being involved in this project is of the utmost importance to our business," he said.
The process of lettuce harvesting has continuously evolved over the past 30 years, with harvest, packing, date coding, boxing and palletising all completed in the field, within minutes of the crop being cut.
Richard Ellis, innovation project manager of G’s subsidiary Salad Harvesting Services Ltd said: “The cutting process of an iceberg is the most technically complicated step in the process to automate.
"We are encouraged to be involved and see the results of this project which offers the potential to reduce reliance on seasonal labour.”
The project will adapt existing leek harvesting machinery to lift the lettuce clear from the ground and grip it in between pinch belts.
The lettuce’s outer, or ‘wrapper’, leaves will be mechanically removed to expose the stem. Machine vision will then identify a precise cut point on the stem to separate lettuce head from stem.
A prototype robotic harvester will be developed for field trials in England towards the end of the 2021 UK season, in around September, then at G's Espana.
Lettuce is also a valuable crop in Europe and the United States. 123,000ha of lettuce and chicory was grown in the EU in 2018 with similar areas in the US.
These areas have similar issues of access to seasonal labour, offering a significant potential market for the lettuce robot.