Building “Daffy”: UK retail supplier turns to Uni robot hackers to fill jobs gap

A Cornwall-based agricultural supplier has issued an urgent appeal to coders, programmers and developers to ‘hack’ robotic solutions to the UK-wide agricultural sector labor shortage, which is affecting their business.

Penzance-based Varfell Farms is one of the UK’s largest agribusiness companies, supplying plants, bulbs, flowers and shrubs to retail chains such as B&Q, M&S and Waitrose. After working with staff and students at Falmouth University, the company decided to put out an urgent call for expertise to help develop a prototype harvesting robot, currently codenamed ‘Luke’.

In partnership with Falmouth University business and robotics academics and the institution’s Venture Studio community, the Varfell Agricultural Technology Hackathon is set to explore a range of ideas related to automated pre-harvest flower picking. daffodils of the company in 2023.

The agricultural sector already uses robotic technology to harvest berries, asparagus and peppers, but Varfell put out an urgent call for tech talent across the UK with a particular focus on developing a faster and more efficient method of harvesting crops.

The Agricultural Technology Robotics Hackathon will take place from 5:30pm on Friday, November 11, to 5:30pm on Saturday, November 12, at the University of Falmouth’s Launchpad studio on the Penryn campus.

Vivienne Neale, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Falmouth University, said:

“There are huge challenges for businesses across the UK facing labor shortages. For the hackathon, our goal is to design a robot that operates at the same cost selection parity as a worker. In addition to this, we are also focused on laying the groundwork for better paid and more skilled roles in the Southwest and believe that digital skills are critical to building this ecosystem.

“As a sector, agriculture is increasingly using artificial intelligence, green and automated technologies to make its businesses more sustainable. This hackathon is all about breaking, reassembling, revising, and rebuilding to make the ultimate iteration. We need coders, web developers, AI specialists, and electronics professionals to help change the future of agriculture. It is such an important Cornish industry and with so many challenges facing businesses at the moment, we are delighted to help create positive change.”

Simon Gardner, director of Varfell Farms, added:

“Varfell Farms Ltd uses the latest automation technology such as optical grades, GPS, drones, satellite imagery, radar and lidar to drive efficiency across all businesses. Picking flowers is an area with very little automation, so being involved in a project that drives innovation in this area is very exciting.”

The hackathon will be officially opened by Professor Emma Hunt, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Falmouth University, 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 has been in the farming business for 150 years and operates the popular Trevaskis Farm on Connor Downs in Hayle.

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