Few companies are truly innovative. Fortunately, Xihelm is one that can legitimately lay claim to the label – for behind Xihelm’s autonomous greenhouse technology lies a team of engineers, PhD researchers and computer scientists, sharing a common vision:
In just three years, this agri-tech team has developed and refined what’s become the UK’s first viable automated handwork robot: Eagle, directed by omatai™.
Here are their stories.
“I studied enough computer science, maths and economics at the LSE, Oxford and Stanford to be useful in deep technology.”
James has a firm pedigree in innovation. He set up one of the earliest cloud computing companies. He spent five years at Google, with responsibility for hardware launches including Chromecast. And whilst at Google, he filed no fewer than 16 patents as an inventor.
His multidisciplinary approach has led and informed Xihelm’s rigorous R&D programme, keeping the team ahead of the competition and capturing the attention of agri-tech investors.
“Xihelm’s small team has delivered precision engineering innovation with tight discipline in a short time.”
It’s vital that Xihelm maintains and extends its competitive lead in automated glasshouse harvesting. Joining Xihelm in 2019, Philip has one primary objective: keeping the R&D programme on track to deliver the UK’s first viable automated handwork robot.
With previous roles at the QVC UK television shopping channel and through his own consultancy, Philip brings the Xihelm team valuable expertise in IT and senior project management.
“Designing Xihelm’s innovative approach to agricultural robotics is a great opportunity to create cutting-edge technology that will transform the way we produce food efficiently at scale.”
Besides his PhD, Ingo has that rare quality: the ability to apply his extensive knowledge of software engineering, artificial intelligence and robotics knowledge to real-world problems. Joining Xihelm in April 2020, Ingo’s gift for ‘translating’ lab science into practical field applications has been invaluable in maximising the company’s R&D output.
With more than fifteen years of experience in developing complex, full-stack software solutions, one of Ingo’s previous achievements while a research associate at Heriot-Watt University was the creation of a robot with socially expressive behaviour, improving the workplace experience of people with autism.
“It’s not enough to understand what needs doing, instead it’s about getting things done while minimising bureaucracy and maximising quality.”
A graduate of the Wroclaw University of Science and Technology, Michal joined Xihelm in 2018. Michal has a strong background in control theory, especially robotic arms. While studying for his Master’s degree in Control engineering and Robotics, Michal contributed to the development of a monocular camera-based collision-avoidance system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – subsequently explored in his thesis.
“It’s high pressure having to deliver within this dynamic team, but I enjoy the challenges.”
A qualified robotics engineer specialising in autonomous vehicles and mobile robots, Manuel’s experience extends across scientific and industrial applications.
Previously heading up a multidisciplinary engineering group for the Hyster-Yale Group, tasked with developing an automatic solution for material handling, Manuel also worked as a software engineer for GlobalLogic. His Master’s degree – Automation and Industrial Electronics Engineering – was awarded by the University of Málaga.
“Using machine vision on vegetation is very challenging – it’s amazing what Xihelm has achieved.”
Key to developing the success, speed and efficiency of Xihelm’s automated indoor harvesting technology is ‘robot perception’ – how the robot ‘understands’ what it sees through its cameras.
Adam joined Xihelm in November 2020, taking responsibility for this vital quality. He’s well qualified for the role: he was most recently working as a post-doctoral researcher on a UCL project called ‘SecondHands’, where robots help out in tasks bypassing things to people. He explored his interest in models inspired by human vision while studying for his PhD at London’s Queen Mary University.
“It’s been exciting watching the autonomous harvesting system develop, from early-stage prototype MVP into a product that’s commercially ready.”
It’s Adam’s thorough understanding of the interaction between mechanical and electrical systems that has helped us achieve continuous and ongoing improvement of Xihelm’s hardware systems.
A graduate of the University of Bath, Adam takes new ideas through concept and prototyping stages until they’re ready to be deployed. Joining Xihelm in 2018, Adam brings in-depth knowledge and understanding of robotic solutions for confined and hazardous environments after an industry placement year at OC Robotics, a division of AGE Aviation.
“Working for Xihelm is quite different. Fast-paced and multidisciplinary, we usually find out quickly whether an idea, no matter how crazy, will work on field-deployed robots.”
Jonne joined us in 2018, straight from academia where he’d been working as a post-doctoral researcher at Brunel University, London. Like many of our team, he brings valuable knowledge from other industries and sectors into our agritech development; Jonne’s previous projects include low-noise airfoil technology for wind energy, noise reduction and active flow control applications for aerospace, and mechanical design support for police and air ambulance helicopters.
Jonne was also the entrepreneurial lead on the ICURe Innovation-to-Commercialisation programme (ICURe), piloted by the SETsquared Partnership and Innovate UK.
“Robotic harvesting is undeniably the future of glasshouse farming."
Anthony keeps us honest: he’s responsible for delivering business and operational insights, not only to the team but to our external stakeholders too.
Overseeing the field experiments and R&D operations across our partner grower sites across the UK and Netherlands, Anthony and his team also test new feature rollouts and generate critical operational data for our harvesting robots.
A self-confessed database explorer and computer networker, Anthony’s a veteran of various start-ups in London and New York.
“My work has a direct link to many other team members and, with the company being small, being able to talk to everyone is a big positive. I enjoy the agricultural aspect and it’s exciting to be developing such a new technology.”
Anthony works on the ‘coal face’ for Xihelm, working with the UK’s leading vine tomato growers on the Isle of Wight.
His inside-out understanding of Eagle, our autonomous glasshouse harvesting robot, is crucial for his role: he maintains the robots, ensuring that components work and interact as intended and performing upgrades when necessary.
“We aim for as little downtime as possible, increasing our harvest-to-harvest speed. I’m pretty good at sharing knowledge with the team and enjoy a strong work ethic – I won’t leave until the job is done.”
During nearly two years at Xihelm, Darren (or ‘Dash’, as he’s known) has been responsible for all Xihelm’s autonomous harvesting trials, and new operator training.
Dash’s role is to oversee the robots’ performance. He gathers metrics on speed, yield, damage and local operator intervention, working with our farming partners growing vine tomatoes at major indoor glasshouse sites.
With a degree in Physics from Durham University, and a background in logistics, team management and customer service, Dash also has an entrepreneurial streak – he’s owned and operated his own PC repair shop for four years.
“Working in the field is challenging but also very rewarding, seeing and being part of the continuing development of our technology.”
Another recent recruit to the Xihelm team, Stephen joined us in 2020.
Responsible for the day-to-day running, maintenance, troubleshooting and schedule planning of our operational site in Teesside, Stephen works closely with other team members on aspects of software, hardware and operations.
In previous roles, Stephen was a robot programmer at KATMEX, where he programmed welding robots with new jobs to deliver shorter lead times and improved quality. Most recently, he worked as Team Leader for Thyssenkrupp Automotive Tallent Services, picking up a ‘Team of the Year’ award two years running.