A man in a field examining an autonomous device to support UK horticulture

Loughborough expertise central to UK fruit production improvements

Developments at Loughborough University are helping tackle problems at the heart of the UK’s fruit production industry.

Labour shortages, environmental impact and efficiency of output are all areas that will look to be improved as a result of work being undertaken by academics within the University’s School of Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering.

Experts at the University have now implemented a specialised navigation system which will be used to assist in two projects focused on improving the country’s horticultural landscape.

Both projects, which have a total funding pot of £6million behind them, are focused on using cutting edge technology to improve the efficiency of fruit production in the UK – whether that be through fruit-picking robots or the creation of digital orchards.

The £4.5millon Precision Orchard Management for the Environment (POME) project is a four-year venture led by Hutchinsons alongside external stakeholders – including project partner NIAB. Funded by commercial partners, DEFRA and Innovate UK, the work will digitally examine and scan fruit trees in fine detail to generate precision dosing maps for blossom, fruit thinning, fertiliser application, growth regulators, pest controls and fungicides – whilst creating a more accurate yield forecast for growers.

The Area-H project, launched in collaboration with Antobot and other external stakeholders, sees the University developed navigation system being implemented to assist with the creation and support of agricultural autonomous robots in the field. The three-year undertaking received a total £1.5million funding from DEFRA and Innovate UK.

Speaking on the POME project, Senior Lecturer in Autonomous Vehicles, Matt Coombes said: "If UK horticulture is to survive the effects of climate change and labour shortages brought about by Brexit, we need to innovate quickly. This project aims to develop precision agricultural techniques to increase efficiency and decrease pesticide use. First, we will combine data from drones and ground robots to give a tree level accurate digital twin of an orchard. This data can then be used to assist a high precision autonomous spraying platform exactly, putting the spray only where it is needed based on the digital twin."

Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Cunjia Liu said: “The involvement in these two innovative horticulture projects funded by the UKRI Farming Innovation Programme presents us with a unique opportunity to transfer our years of fundamental research in robotics and AI to address the pressing challenges of the UK horticulture industry. Our aim is to further develop our understanding and elevate the technology readiness level through close collaboration with key stakeholders in both projects. This synergy is not just about immediate solutions; it's about generating a lasting research impact that paves the way for a more sustainable and resilient future in agriculture.”

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 24/10

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2024 and 10th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.