Xihelm – commercially harvesting vine tomatoes using robots
Xihelm is an agri-tech start up, the first UK company to commercially harvest vine tomatoes using robots in indoor greenhouses. Founded by James Kent, following a stint at Google, his aim was to ‘build a business with the latest technology that could potentially change the world’. With a focus on building efficiency in the agriculture sector, the start-up is focusing on building deep computer vision – computers that can see and understand the real world. It is building robots that can see, understand and harvest crops. In its three years since launch, Xihelm has already proven that its technology is cheaper and more advanced than competitors.
The technology is being developed to operate in huge greenhouses utilising software and AI to enable these robots to move efficiently and selectively harvest the exact amount of crops that match the growers’ specifications. For the growers, this means reduced hygiene concerns and the ability to access more accurate data on how much crop is available to sell and whether their crops will be susceptible to diseases.
Where is the demand coming from?
Most growers find that labour is their biggest cost, though there is increasing uncertainty around price, quality and supply. Factors such as the ongoing pandemic have made it harder to recruit and retain talent to harvest tomatoes and other crops. For all growers, labour shortages and unpredictability are top of their concerns plus sourcing data around the availability of crops.
The technology that Xihelm has developed utilises 3D AI to build robots that see and understand the real world. They’re built to understand where the crop is, whether it’s ripe so it can harvest the crop effectively without damaging it.
What’s the future for Xihelm?
Globally, Xihelm is chasing a big market but it’s significantly ahead of the competition in terms of progress. It is the first company to achieve a solution to labour challenges that is cheaper and presents a more reliable option than human labour. It has forecasted that the robots will eventually reduce the number of workers needed for harvesting by between 50 and 70 per cent and those remaining will be skilled robotics operators.
The greenhouses that it operates in are huge and need a scale of operations to work efficiently. A typical greenhouse will need six robots to pick efficiently this year, however last year that figure was ten and next year it’s likely to be three. As it progresses the AI technology can do more and more of the work to meet the growers’ requirements.
David Mott, Founder Partner, Oxford Capital comments: “For over 20 years, we’ve been backing UK tech entrepreneurs such as James Kent, Co-Founder & CEO of Xilhelm who stand out in their ambition to solve big problems in innovative ways. Xihelm has a powerful and tested vision of how robotics can play a major role in the future of agriculture by supporting UK glasshouse vegetable and fruit producers to compete in global markets while creating sustainable UK based agri-tech jobs for the future. We’re really excited about what the future holds for this company.”