An agricultural supplier based in Cornwall has made an urgent plea for coders, programmers and developers to ‘hack’ robotic solutions to the agricultural sector’s UK-wide labour shortage, which is affecting their business.
Penzance-based Varfell Farms is one of the UK’s largest agri-business firms, supplying plants, bulbs, blooms and shrubs to retail chains including B&Q, M&S and Waitrose. After working with staff and students from Falmouth University, the company decided to issue an urgent call for expertise to help develop a prototype robot picker – currently code-named ‘Daffy’.
In partnership with Falmouth University’s business and robotics academics and the institution’s Venture Studio community, Varfell’s agri-tech hackathon is set to explore a range of ideas relating to automated flower picking ahead of the firm’s 2023 daffodil harvest.
The agricultural sector already uses robotic technology to pick soft fruit, asparagus, and peppers, but Varfell issued the urgent plea to tech talent across the UK with a particular focus on developing a quicker, more efficient method for crop harvesting.
The agri tech robotics hackathon will take place at place from 5.30pm on Friday 11 November until 5.30pm on Saturday 12 November in Falmouth University’s Launchpad studio at Penryn Campus.
Vivienne Neale, Entrepreneurship Lecturer at Falmouth University, said:
“There are huge challenges for businesses across the UK who are facing labour shortages. For the hackathon, our aim is to design a robot to operate at the same cost picking parity as a worker. In addition to this, we are also focused on laying the groundwork for higher paid, higher skilled roles in the south west and we believe that digital skills are pivotal for building this ecosystem.
“As a sector, farming is increasingly using AI, green and automated technologies to make their businesses more sustainable. This hackathon is about breaking, reassembling, revising, and re-creating to make the ultimate iteration. We need coders, web developers, AI specialists and electronics professionals to help change the future of agriculture. It’s such an important Cornish industry and with so many challenges facing businesses at the moment, we’re thrilled to help create a positive change.”
Simon Gardner, Director at Varfell Farms, added:
“Varfell Farms Ltd use the latest automation technology such as optical grades, GPS, drones, satellite imagery, radar and lidar to drive efficiencies in across business. Picking flowers is one area with very little automation so to be involved in a project driving innovation in this area is hugely exciting.”
The hackathon will be officially opened by Prof Emma Hunt, Falmouth University’s Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive as well as George Eustice MP, who has strong family connections to Cornwall and was until recently Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Mr Eustice’s family have been in the farming business for 150 years and operate the popular Trevaskis Farm estate at Connor Downs in Hayle.