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Robotics and AI could help to boost productivity down on the farm when EU subsidies end

The continuing Brexit negotiations have yet to bring certainty to any industries. While New Electronics has already highlighted the concerns of the scientific research community, another group is waiting anxiously for progress.

That group is the UK’s farmers. Currently, the UK’s agriculture sector receives some £3billion a year in EU subsidies. That money will stop when the UK leaves the EU. While the Government has said it will match that funding, it will only do so until 2022. What happens after that is open to conjecture, but the suggestion is that just as industry has been urged to boost its productivity, so too should farmers.

There’s little chance that farmers will be left to their own devices, though. The sector contributes more than £14billion a year to the UK’s economy and supports some 500,000 jobs, so the political consequences would be fairly unpleasant.

Is it more than a coincidence that at the recent National Farmers Union conference, industry secretary Greg Clark announced a £90million investment in robotics, AI and earth observation technologies.

Clark said the £90m funding will make the Government’s Transforming Food Production Challenge a reality and enable the creation of ‘Translation Hubs’, helping to apply the latest research to farming practice.

Is it also a coincidence that the announcement should fall back on robotics and AI – currently the two ‘go to’ phrases for politicians who want to look on the ball?

The potential for both technologies is huge, but each carries with it a significant downside. In the case of robotics, the downside is the perception that the technology is taking people’s jobs away from them. The downside of AI is that it might actually be too clever for its – and our – good.

Robotics will have a place in the industry of tomorrow – whatever the sector – but it won’t be to the exclusion of humans. While some captains of industry will see the opportunity to replace workers with automation, others see collaborative robots – or cobots – as having the potential to augment our abilities.

Farmers are already using technology to a greater or lesser extent; will robotics help them to reap a better harvest?

Graham Pitcher

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