In science fiction the sight of a robotic hand reaching out to grasp something soft and fleshly usually precedes an untimely death.
But the robot that has just completed its initial trials at a West Sussex farm has far more benign intentions – not to squish the raspberries it has been designed to pick.
Although the “robocrop” – built by University of Plymouth spinout firm Fieldwork Robotics – might not be intent on eradicating homosapiens, it raises questions about the fate of the humans who make their living picking crops as well as the impact of automation more widely.
Data from the trials will be used to refine and improve the prototype system before further field trials are held later this year.
If they are successful, manufacturing of a commercial system could begin as early as 2020.
Fieldwork is focusing initially on raspberries because they are hard to pick, are more delicate and easily damaged than other soft fruits, and grow on bushes with complex foliage and berry distribution.
The firm says that once the system is proved to work with raspberries, it can be adapted readily for other soft fruits and vegetables, with the same researchers also developing proof-of-concept robots for other crops.
Robotic fruit and vegetable pickers, as well as other technologies such as autonomous dairy farms, are set to revolutionise food production in the coming years.
The changes are part of the wave of automation known as Industry 4.0, which is set to transform the world of work as we know it.
“But the key here is when,” cautioned agricultural expert and Unite member Dr Charlie Clutterbuck.
“If you look at similar crop picking initiatives in America you’re talking four or five years at least. So it’s not immediate.”
Even if the technology is available it doesn’t necessarily mean it will used, Clutterbuck added.
“The technology will only come if it is worth investing in. If the labour is cheaper they’ll stick with cheap labour. Machinery in the car industry came in because the car workers were well paid but farm workers aren’t,” said Clutterbuck.
“The other thing is that for any farmer to invest in this sort of technology they’ve got to be pretty sure of the risks involved and I can’t see many farmers making any decisions at the moment given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“So it’s going to be patchy and partial. Some farmers will have a go and try it out but some will wait quite a few years yet.”
This summer Robocrop might not be coming to a field near you, but that doesn’t mean automation is an issue that should be ignored.
As part of Unite’s Work, Voice, Pay industrial strategy, the union is focusing on how to make automation benefit workers across all sectors.
Unite executive officer Sharon Graham said that working people need to be at the centre of the automation debate to ensure that technological developments deliver better jobs, shorter working weeks and better retirements.
She added, “The next generation of technology will generate wealth and this needs to deliver for ordinary people, not just make bigger profits for corporations. We need powerful unions to fight for that to happen.”