A year before brexit: Britain solves the problem of labor shortage through robotization

    Strawberry pickers at the farm Hugh Lowe in Kent. The farm provides strawberries with the entire Wimbledon tournament.

    Technologies develop faster during periods of turmoil. Wars and confrontations of rival countries brought hundreds of inventions to the world, including aviation, rocket and space technology, cellular digital communications, and optoelectronics. And even the Colossus decoding machine is the ancestor of modern computers. Now in Europe is preparing a major political event: the exit of Britain from the European Union, or Brexit. Analysts say that it may affect the pace of robotization in the country, which will have to fill the shortage of workers.

    Are robots ready to replace migrants and seasonal workers? And will Britain have time to reach the desired level of robotization until 2020 - the date when it should finally leave the European Union?

    Extent of the problem

    There are more places for unskilled workers in the UK than candidates for them, especially in the agricultural sector. For example, the berry farm in Herefordshire needs 3,600 workers each season , but there are only about 800 people in the city trying to find a job. And not all of them agree to pick strawberries. A similar situation on other farms, of which there are quite a few in Britain: the country provides itself with berries, fruits, vegetables and greens, without buying them abroad.

    British Summer Fruits (BSF), which brings together 97% of all strawberry producers in the country, recently expressed its concern in the press. According to BSF chairman Nick Marston, most of his colleagues predict a labor shortage in the spring and summer of 2019. Therefore, part of the farms reduces production, and some of them are thinking of transferring plantations to another country.

    In 2013, the quota for attracting seasonal workers from abroad in the UK was 21,250. Now the need has not decreased, but it has become more difficult to attract the necessary amount of labor: the EU countries are successfully developing, and the unemployment rate in Romania has recently updated the historical minimum. So, the number of people willing to work on the English plantations is getting smaller. New restrictions in migration policy, which will come into force after leaving the EU, will add to employers difficulties.

    Strawberry Farm UK

    What to do?

    An alternative to Nick Marston and his colleagues consider hiring workers outside the European Union. But new migration controls will certainly complicate the procedure. British Prime Minister Theresa May plans to introduce a point system for non-EU migrants and other restrictions by 2019 to prevent sudden surges in migration. Specific measures have not yet been named, therefore, farmers and other consumers of foreign labor are in limbo. Of course, Britain cannot completely ban migration - it will strike a blow to the country's economy. But restrictive measures may result in additional costs for farmers, which means a jump in prices for their products.

    Engineers offer another solution: equip plantations with robots. Mechanical harvesting will reduce the need for labor and help keep prices down. A prototype of such a device was created at the University of Essex.

    Strawberry robot: device and functions

    Mechanization and robotization in agriculture is not new. Robots successfully collect tomatoes, cabbage and green peas, and unmanned combines have already been developed for grain and root crops. But on the plantations of strawberries and other soft berries, manual labor is still used. After all, the work is not easy: to find the berries among the branches and leaves and carefully collect them without crushing them. On some farms, the berries are also sorted at the assembly stage.

    Dr. Vishnu Moa from the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, commented : “We need to create a system into which vision, touch, force and motion control will be integrated into the complex. And at the same time she will be able to learn and adapt. ” Without learning in any way, because the strawberry field is a constantly changing, chaotic environment.

    Vishnu Moa with his robot. As we see, it is compiled on the basis of Universal Robotics collaborative robot

    Dr. Moa and a team of his colleagues create a robot that can successfully solve all these tasks. The device will simulate the movement of a person picking berries with two hands, and use cameras to search for strawberries among the leaves. Prototype plan to submit in a few months. A working model, according to engineers, can be developed already by the Brexit date.

    Farmers skeptical

    Owners of plantations believe that the robot will not solve their problems. Nick Marston comments that the device is only at the initial stage of development, and is convinced that it will take several years to launch it into commercial production. Knowing well how difficult the process of picking strawberries is even for people, he considers the development of a robot a “huge challenge”. As the chairman of the British Summer Fruits adds, agriculture is now really afraid of a shortage of workers who cannot be replaced by robots in the near future.

    Statistics of the International Federation of Robots says that before the decision on brexite, the rates of robotization were low: 71 robots per 10 thousand human workers (for comparison: in Germany - 132, in France - 309). Now they began to grow. “I sold six robots to companies that cannot find employees because their Eastern European workers are leaving the country,” said Mark Gray, a spokesman for Universal Robots. Robots can perform thousands of actions, from welding to mixing cocktails, and by 2020 they will significantly improve.

    However, manufacturers of agricultural and industrial products in the UK do not believe that robots will replace human workers with them. Therefore, they urge the government to clarify the issue with migrants as soon as possible. In February, Secretary of the Environment Michael Gove agreed with the arguments and promised to soon clarify the new rules of the game, but so far this has not happened.

    Do you think the UK will have time to compensate for the shortage of workers with robots?

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