Interview with Kees Lokhorst, coordinator of agROBOfood project

Feb 28, 2022

We interviewed Kees Lokhorst, who is project coordinator of the agROBOfood project and working as a senior researcher on smart farming and robotics at Wageningen Livestock Research. agROBOfood is an EU funded project aiming to build a European ecosystem for the effective adoption of robotic technologies in the agri-food sector, which in turn will become more efficient and competitive. The heart of the project is formed by Innovation Experiments, organized and monitored by Digital Innovation Hubs.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I am a senior scientist who specialized in Precision Livestock and Smart Farming and project leader of the agROBOfood project. 

Precision Livestock and Smart Farming within Wageningen Livestock Research is coordinated and stimulated by me. I am involved in several national and international research projects (e.g. WASP, BioBusiness, EU-PLF, IoF2020, ERANET ICT Agri, 4D4F, EIP focus group on mainstreaming precision agriculture, Smart Dairy Farming) concerning transition processes in (animal) farming systems. Research is focused on the possibilities of ICT and sensor information to support farmers in their daily management. Developing, testing, implementation and socio-economic consequences of knowledge-intensive systems were studied in various application areas and farming systems. I have experience in managing projects and groups and has worked in several sectors. I am actively contributed to the organization of national and international conferences. From 2014 till 2019 I was also professor Herd Management and Smart Dairy farming at Van Hall Larenstein university for applied science and I wrote the book ‘An Introduction to Smart Dairy Farming

Currently, I am stimulating the uptake of ROBOTICS in the Wageningen Livestock environment. I coordinate the EU project agROBOfood that builds a pan-European network of Digital Innovation Hubs. 

Which technology areas will have the biggest impact in the coming years? Why?

Together with the EU-Robotics topic group on agrifood robotics, agROBOfood have written a strategic agenda for robotics. Based on our vision that ‘future agri-food production networks will be flexible, responsive, and transparent, providing sufficient high-quality and healthy products and services for everyone at a reasonable cost while preserving resources, biodiversity, climate, environment, and cultural differences’ our mission will be to ‘Stimulate the development and integration of innovative robotic, AI, and Data solutions that can successfully be used in flexible, responsive, and transparent agri-food production networks’.

Key identified challenges are:

  • Technology 
  1. World modelling, simulation, and benchmarking.
  2. Robot-to-X interaction.
  3. 24/7 Level 5 cooperative systems and fleet and swarm management.
  4. Perception in robotics.
  5. Multi-dimensional manipulation.
  6. Interactive design of trustful, safe, and ethical robotic systems.
  • Ecosystem
  1. Sustainable pan-European agROBOfood network.
  • Business 
  1. Push-to-market for agricultural robots and systems, support, education, and training.
  2. Specialized robots to be used by seasonal unskilled labour.
  • Training and Human Capital Development  
  1. Infrastructure for practical training with access to robotics.
  2. Lifelong learning: connecting people from agri-food with people from robotics and analytics.


Slawomir Sander, Eldert van Henten, Kees Lokhorst, Erik Pekkeriet, Thilo Steckel, European Robotics in agri-food Production: Opportunities and Challenges

What is the role of DIHs in the accelerating robotics innovations of the EU? How can this role be strengthened?

agROBOfood will develop a pan-European network of Digital Innovation Hubs/Competence Centres (DIHs) to stimulate the implementation of high-tech robotic concepts for the agri-food sector and to demonstrate their applicability under practical circumstances. The DIHs in this network act as centres of gravity, where various stakeholders such as developers, users, consultants and investors can interact and ensure synergy and cross-pollination of ideas.

It is the intention that this pan-European network works for and represents the DIHs that are active all over Europe. Individual DIH’s work as local one-stop-shops that are capable of delivering specific services (technical, business, ecosystem, training) to their clients. The sustainability of the agROBOfood network is targeted to the agROBOfood network level. 

The main components of the current interaction of the agROBOfood project network with its environment are: 

  •   increasing the end-user awareness of what robotics can do for them by actually developing and demonstrating robotics solutions. Show the technology added value through Innovation Experiments (IEs) and Industrial Challenges (ICs), 
  •   one-stop-shop DIHs both online and physically within reasonable working distance, providing access to appropriate services on a pan-European level, 
  •   facilitating the market introduction of new robotic technologies by maturing research prototypes up to TRL 8, 
  •   advising end-users how to fund the digital transformation of their company, 
  •   engaging in standardization activities and promoting open standards and platforms, 
  •   connecting to other robotics networks and projects through direct links and the Robotics DIH CSA.

What are the key elements which robotics Digital Innovation Hubs should use to support the digitalisation of their local ecosystems?

DIHs should be visible at the local level. They should be recognized as a partner that has expertise in a variety of robotic and digitalisation aspects. It can be beneficial for these local DIHs that they are part of a pan-European network with even more knowledge and experts.

Which policies should the robotics DIHs pay attention to in the coming years?

Robotics can of course contribute to the content and realization of the policy of the Green Deal and the Farm2Fork strategy. Besides it is important that robotics should actively take part in the social and ethical discussions on responsible and explainable AI, data and robotic strategies. On the part of digitalization, the robotics community should be aware of the digital strategy, especially on the cybersecurity aspects.

What are some future funding opportunities for the robotics DIHs?

There is a variety of funding for robotic activities. For individuals and the pan-European network, the best appropriate funding mechanisms have to be discovered. To be successful it is expected that these networks will need some additional support in the coming years and that it will be a mix of public and private funding. For SMEs and start-ups, a nice overview of funding opportunities is presented in one of the upcoming deliverables.

Please, name a few challenges and opportunities of robotics DIHs in Europe?

As an example, funding is on a project basis and does not support continuous interaction and development.

What are the biggest challenges that your SMEs have (including COVID-19) and how do you help them to address them?

I have explained these challenges before in the questions, but I will mention again the key areas: Technology, Ecosystem, Business and Training Human Capital and Development. 

How do you support SMEs and your industry in general in the fight against COVID-19? 

No specific actions were created. We see in the experiments and running the project that remote contact can work in quite some cases and that it stimulates also the way products will be supported by remote control. Nevertheless, we see also those physical meetings for network building and creative brainstorms suffer. We try to support this by organizing different webinars, but it is will not replace all physical contacts. 

Find out more about agROBOfood here and on their social media platforms.