04 Jul, 2024 / BY Neil Sharp

How robotics and warehouse automation bring food from field to fork

How robotics and warehouse automation bring food from field to fork

The scarcity of labour and the cost of logistics in the food production and delivery chain can lead to waste and higher prices for consumers. But a growing army of integrated robotic systems working in fields and warehouses, as well as in the delivery sector, could change all that.

Farmers across the world are struggling to fill vacancies as produce is regularly left rotting in fields unpicked. In the UK, warehouses waste 3000 hours a year due to unproductive and non-automated workflows. Meanwhile, inefficiencies in delivery logistics create huge amounts of food waste annually. In total, the USDA estimates that 30–40% of food spoils before it reaches consumers each year.

Yet at every stage of food production and distribution, we are seeing extraordinary advances in robotic innovation that are moving perishable goods faster through the chain and into the hands of consumers. 

This blog explores the many roles of warehouse and robotic automation throughout this process, as fresh produce travels from field to fork.


Companies like Robotics Plus in New Zealand are pioneering automation technologies that streamline the complex process of moving fruit from the tree to the packing house. The company has developed unmanned ground vehicles that can navigate orchards without damaging the plants. These vehicles are equipped with advanced sensors to accurately map their surroundings and efficiently handle manual tasks, like harvesting and tending fruit crops.

Robotic Plus vehicle

Source: Robotic Plus Unmanned Ground Vehicle

Robotics Plus’s Dr Alistair Scarfe claims that:

“The robot will harvest 80% of the crop, dealing with the high volume, stressful fruit load, with sweeper crews coming through to pick whatever other fruit has been missed. It also means there is a place for upskilling people capable of running this equipment and diverting them away from the tough seasonal work to develop more skills around orchard management.”

Sorting and packing produce

Once food arrives in a warehouse, sorting and packing the produce has traditionally been a manual job, with teams of pickers standing next to conveyor belts and carrying out real-time quality control. 

But where harvest windows are tight and goods are highly perishable, the clock is ticking to get produce sorted, packed, frozen and/or dispatched fast. A 24/7 inspection and packing line is essential, but humans get tired, need breaks and are prone to making errors. Now, machines are transforming the inspection process, resulting in the need for a smaller human workforce to operate and oversee these much more efficient operations.

Companies like Ellips have developed intelligent machines to help packing warehouses scan produce coming straight from the field. These systems integrate sophisticated optical sensors with complex machine solutions to assess quality and sort produce. The types of imaging technology that are used include:

  • 2D cameras
  • 3D laser profilers
  • Infrared cameras (NIR and SWIR)
  • Colour sorting systems
  • Hyperspectral imaging
  • UV imaging
  • X-ray imaging

Machines combine these imaging capabilities with AI and real-time data analytics to detect ripeness, disease, mould and damage, as well as the presence of foreign objects on the production line. This allows top-quality sorting and grading of produce to meet very specific customer requirements.

But Ellips is not just looking at the exterior of the fruit – the company is looking within, too. Within its onion-grading machine, there are cameras that can effectively identify internal defects, such as sprouting, bulb rot and neck rot.

Untitled design (18)

Source: Onion-grading machine - Ellips

Food processing

Extraordinary developments in robotic capabilities are also helping with precision food preparation. Now, automated systems are capable of performing intricate manual food preparation tasks that previously could only be performed by dextrous humans.

For example, the Optical Roto-Cut by Wyma Solutions combines optical technology, a smart recognition system and AI to carry out topping and tailing of produce. The system uses this technology to determine the unique shape of each vegetable, after which it decides on the optimal place to make the cut and then actually performs the cut – all in just 0.2 seconds. Over the course of one hour, this equates to a throughput of 1–2 tons.

The net result is far more efficient production with less waste, without being constrained by a lack of human labour. 


And then comes the challenge of packing delicate fruit. Once again, Robotics Plus has pioneered a robot that uses real-time image analysis to automate this complex and delicate job. The company’s apple-packer carefully picks up apples from a conveyor by using suction and then places them in display trays. The packer is also intelligent enough to arrange the apples so that the side with the best colour is facing upwards. 

These machines are faster and even more delicate than their human counterparts. For example, Robotics Plus claims that its automated apple-packer “can pack about 120 apples a minute, so it is much faster than a human, and much more consistent – it doesn’t get tired and the fruit gets fewer bruises, even at top speed.”


New advancements in transportation technology are making a difference in addressing challenges in cold-chain logistics, which can often lead to significant food waste. 

Automated refrigeration units that can dynamically – and remotely – adjust temperatures based on the type of produce being transported are being integrated into supply chains. These units ensure that food maintains its freshness for longer, reducing spoilage rates.

Another application is robotic process automation (RPA). This technology allows computer software (a bot) to be configured to imitate how a human executes a process within a digital system. These bots “capture data and manipulate applications via the user interface… The difference is that they are faster and much more efficient than humans. Bots don’t make mistakes and can work 24/7.” This results in a streamlined and higher-quality service, with associated cost savings.

Picking orders for customers

In Ocado’s highly automated warehouse, robots operate in co-ordination on a structure known as ‘the grid’. 

This grid allows the robots to pick a typical 50-item order in just a matter of minutes – a task that would take hours in a traditional warehouse setup where items are scattered across distant shelves.

OSRS Grid  Ocado

Source: OSRS Grid - Ocado Intelligence Automation 

Each robot, resembling the size and shape of a washing machine, has a specific role in navigating this grid to optimise the order-picking process:

1. Central control: The actions of all individual robots are orchestrated by a central computer system. This system assigns tasks and co-ordinates movements across the grid, ensuring that each robot operates in harmony with others to maximise efficiency.

2. Collaborative retrieval: When a customer’s order needs to be fulfilled, the system calculates the most efficient way to gather all the required items. Robots work together to access crates stored up to 17 layers deep. They team up to quickly dig through the stack, retrieving items buried deep below the surface.

3. Crane-like mechanism: Each robot is equipped with a central cavity and a set of claws, which it uses to grasp and lift crates into its interior.

4. Dynamic reassignment: If a particular robot encounters an issue or is out of operation, its tasks can be quickly reassigned to another robot. This interchangeability ensures that the system remains resilient and that order processing can continue uninterrupted, even if one robot fails.

Delivery to homes

Robot delivery systems are perhaps one of the applications of robotic automation that is gradually becoming more visible to consumers. Companies like Amazon and Walmart are at various stages of rolling out delivery by drone to their customers.

Similarly, at ground level Starship Technologies and other companies are deploying fleets of small autonomous vehicles for the final leg of delivery to customers. These robots are equipped to intelligently navigate pavements, crossings and numerous other obstacles.

starship robot

Source: Starship Technologies

As well as speeding up delivery times, these robots have the added benefit of reducing traffic congestion.

Automation throughout the agri-supply chain

The integration of AI-driven robotics throughout the food production and distribution chain represents a valuable tool to resolve the labour shortages and production inefficiencies that are characteristic of the industry. 

From the fields where crops are grown, to the homes and restaurants where they are consumed, robotics are playing an increasingly vital role in ensuring that food is delivered fresh and fast, reducing waste and ultimately lowering costs for consumers. 

This technological revolution not only is changing the landscape of food production but could also prove essential in the fight against global food waste and inefficiency.

A step-by-step guide to outsourcing your agtech production

Written by Neil Sharp

Neil has over 25 years’ experience in Electronics Manufacturing Services and Component Distribution. During his career, Neil has held a range of leadership positions in sales, marketing, and customer service. Neil is currently part of the ESCATEC Senior Management Team and is responsible for setting and delivering the overall Group Marketing strategy. Neil heads up the marketing department and is responsible for both the strategy and the implementation of innovative marketing campaigns designed to deliver high quality content to those seeking outsourcing solutions.