Interview with Kees Lokhorst, Coordinator of Agrobofood project

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. Started as an EU funded project, agROBOfood brings together stakeholders from the entire agri-food community to address the challenges in agriculture through the uptake of agri-food robotics. The aim of agROBOfood network is to lower the barriers for agri-food companies to access and implement the newest robotic agricultural solutions.

The Innovation Action project that you have been coordinating has come/is coming to an end. What has been your experience with the DIH X project so far? What impact have you created for your DIHs and the industry?

Creating a pan-European network of DIHs for the agri-food sector has been (and still is) an exciting and challenging journey. agROBOfood is an ecosystem that brings together leaders, innovators, scientists, engineers, farmers and many others enabling them to collaborate closely and share their experiences with a common aim: lower the barrier for adoption of robotics in the agri-food sector. Towards that direction agROBOfood also used the funding mechanism of Open Calls. Their aim was twofold: on the one hand to provide SMEs, Start-Ups, Mid-caps, Companies with the means to further their work in robotics; on the other hand, support Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) on enhancing their portfolio of services and improve the way they support the digitization journey of their respective local SMEs, Start-Ups, Mid-Caps, Companies. The process of Open Calls helped us also to understand that the agri-food market is very eager to develop and integrate robotic solutions that can automate labour-intensive tasks, enhance productivity and deliver real time data insights. That need was further evident by both circumstances like the pandemic and the crisis in Ukraine, as well as from trends like the declining availability of labour in the European Union, which according to the Commission will keep on decreasing by 2% until 2030. Availability of enough and qualified labour is becoming a limiting factor in the production of enough, safe and quality food. Although it is very early to qualify the impact of robotics in agriculture, even of agROBOfood as a network, we are confident that we did put a stepping stone and that we have inspired and supported a variety of organizations, both DIHs and companies.

What was the most challenging while supporting the SME projects? How did you overcome it?

Through the funding mechanism of Open Calls, we were able to support 20 different Innovation Experiments. For agROBOfood the most challenging part was to shift the mindset of the teams that were developing the robotics solutions towards a more “balanced” approach, helping them understand that it goes beyond just having a technical solution. More specifically, the aim was to showcase how different “pieces” need to fit into the puzzle of developing such a solution; for example how it is essential to engage with end users and utilize their insights; how important it is to monitor and take into account market developments and funding opportunities for their work; how valuable proper testing can be and how integration of components can upgrade their solutions. To help them towards that direction, agROBOfood set a frame for their work since the beginning with three distinct phases: Design – Development – Market. Each phase was followed by a review process with the Innovation Experiment consortium, during which agROBOfood or an assigned DIH helped them refine and re-direct their efforts to further improve their work. There were various challenges ranging from technical to practical for all the teams that participated in the Innovation Experiments. One of those practical challenges were for example the restrictions in traveling due to the pandemic, which also translated to shortages of components, especially chips. Their willingness to further their work – and with the support provided by the agROBOfood network- helped them to forge ahead and find creative solutions in dealing with these challenges.

Is there a project or result that you are particularly proud of? Could you share a success story with us whereby one of your beneficiaries has made significant progress in their robotics innovation goals thanks to the work of your network?

agROBOfood strives to create ways that will help re-think the way we do agriculture, one of the most important sectors that affects our daily lives, even if we do not recognize it immediately. It is not only the food that we consume, tasty fruits and vegetables; it is what we wear and what we use. 

This is why we are proud for our project as a whole, since as previously mentioned, we do believe that agROBOfood, by creating an ecosystem, supporting DIHs with expertise and SMEs in their digitalisation journey, has put a building block in the agri-food robotics scenery. From a more personal perspective, as the project coordinator, I am also proud that I have had the opportunity to manage the diversity in and the impact of such a project. A network relies on its members; people that are invested in what they do, share a mutual interest that brings them together and who work side by side for the same purpose. But in order to work together, people need to recognise and address a number of challenges,

including culture, expertise and many other things. On top of the usual challenges faced by such diverse and large teams, there was also the pandemic; throughout the whole time everyone, including our team, were forced to learn to do much more on-line. Although this was challenging, I firmly believe that there are lessons to be learned and a silver lining that we can transfer to our way of working in the coming years. I am proud at the same time that the agROBOfood network and team will continue to work together in the coming years.  

As far as the Innovation Experiments are concerned, the whole process was very rewarding; from the regular review discussions, to their connection with DIHs. All that experience in return led to my personal and the project’s as a whole contribution to the strategic agenda with the white paper ‘European Robotics in agri-food Production: Opportunities and Challenges‘ that we developed together with the euRobotics topic group on Robotics in Agriculture. 

It is difficult to pick an individual success stories, since there are many people working in the agROBOfood project and they all experienced success. Small and big, they were all relevant to learning experiences and furthering their work in different directions. Nevertheless, I would like to mention two examples. Some DIHs were very successful in becoming project partners in the newly formed European Digital Innovation Hubs and the recently started agrifoodTEF project. Beside the continuity in the agROBOfood network this shows the need for robotic expertise in agri-food. Finally, another example of an achievement through our network was the matching of one of our funding recipients (an SME) with Kubota, a large-scale enterprise in the robotic market. This is a powerful example of the opportunities that lie ahead for robotic solutions and how it can open a world-wide market for them.

What are your plans, talking about the sustainability of your network?

Since its’ conception agROBOfoods’ aim was to start locally and grow on a Pan-European level and this is the strategy adopted for sustaining that network, since visibility on both a local and European level is key. For this purpose and in order to support national DIHs agROBOfood worked with 7 Regional Clusters with their respective Coordinators. This is also the way forward; experts along with the cluster coordinators will form partnerships that will carry on with the legacy of agROBOfood and ensure its’ sustainability in the coming years as an Innovation Network. This will also happen under the umbrella of euRobotics and in cooperation with the topic group on agricultural robotics. 

The added value and value proposition of the pan-European agROBOfood network that can be offered is:

  1. Facilitation of easy access to vital information and experts in agri-food robotics
  2. Facilitation of access to leading-edge robotic technologies, skills and expertise that can be applied in the European agri-food context to accelerate a digital transformation. 
  3. Support and identification of new business opportunities and policy recommendations by providing market insights from its community.
  4. Stimulation and support of business members (SMEs, Start-Ups, etc) to find services and investments.

How can potential clients access the above mentioned services?

The whole process is designed based again on the combination of local with the pan-European aspects. Potential clients can contact their local DIHs that act as a one-stop-shops offering their support and providing a variety of services from technical, to ecosystem and business. Leveraging the ‘local’ aspect of DIHs, they become one of the ‘entry points’ – and probably the most prominent – in the agROBOfood ecosystem, since they already have an established network of their own in their regions of interest. Those ‘local points of entry’ through are also promoted and are visible through agROBOfood (either from the website and/or other social media channels) on a European level. As a result, even if a specific DIH that received a request is not capable of providing the support requested, the network is mobilized to find the best available alternative from the network of DIHs or experts. This is the value of being part of a wider network of experts working on robotics in the agri-food sector.

If your network is open for new members, how can our target audience sign up to become a member of your network?

The agROBOfood network is and is foreseen to remain open in the upcoming years for new DIH and Business members that wish to become part of a vibrant community and contribute to its’ evolvement in their own way. All new members can easily join through our website, by providing some information that are also used to promote them afterwards through the website. Apart from joining as members there are also other possibilities to connect or cooperate with agROBOfood such as sponsorships to the network, organisation of domain or theme specific events related and of interest to the network. The philosophy of the network is to always keep growing!

How do you think that being a member of your network is going to impact the performance of your DIH members? What added value is it going to bring to their operations?

The agROBOfood network has a strong foundation in more than 30 European countries; this provides insights both on a local, as well as a European level that allows for a flexibility in the ways challenges are understood and resolved. In other words, the network as a whole has the ability to support local needs and individual DIHs in being a professional one-stop-shop for robotics in agri-food, also providing them with the opportunity to grow in a European level through the cooperations built within the network. The benefits of being part of that European network is having:

  1. easier access to European markets
  2. economies of scale in organizing (cross border) collaboration and events, 
  3. increased visibility for public and private funders
  4. increased visibility of best practices and robotic solutions, 
  5. easier access to expertise and experiences in robotics for agri-food, and
  6. easier access to European networks for policy, industry and research.

Finally, what message or advice would you like to share with our participants here to motivate them to continue growing and advancing this network collectively?

Coming together is the main message that we must push to get through to anyone and everyone! The challenges faced in the agri-food sector are already very big and still growing. This makes one thing clear: challenges cannot be solved just by individuals. Cooperation and working together is key. Robotics are expected to be one of the digital technologies that will have the power to transform agriculture, playing thus an integral role. However, these technological developments should take place in a much broader context of business development, social and ethical acceptance, transparency and capacity to integrate it in improved and new farming practices. Therefore, I personally and we as a team are convinced that the concept of Digital Innovation Hubs will contribute towards that direction, as well as that there is a need for the agROBOfood network of experts that can understand robotics and the agri-food sector. Returning to the message that we want to convey, coming together and working side by side in a vibrant network, will only strengthen the contributions that we can make in the robotics agri-food sector!

Click the link below to visit the project, get access to their, events, project results, success stories, deliverables, partners and contact details