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Bringing you news, opinion and innovation in technological advances in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture, check out the Agri-EPI blog.
Exploring precision farming, including engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across crops, land management and livestock, our blog includes input from our broad sector membership and academic partners the length and breadth of the UK.
Offering you ideas and innovation from national and international projects and initiatives, don’t miss out!

Agri-EPI Centre marks Farm Safety Week 2021

Farming is one of the UK’s most dangerous industries to work in; despite making up just 1% of workers, farmers and their employees accounting for as many as 20% of all workplace fatalities.

To raise awareness of farm safety and educate farm workers about how to protect themselves and others on farm, and prevent avoidable deaths on the UK’s 220,000 farms, NFU Mutual established the Farm Safety Foundation in 2014.

Providing farm safety training to over 11,000 young farmers across 44 land-based colleges and universities in the UK, the Farm Safety Week also runs various awareness-raising campaigns such as Mind Your Head, focusing on farmer’s mental health and wellbeing, and Farm Safety Week.

To mark this year’s Farm Safety Week, Agri-EPI Centre spotlighted a wide range of our network members whose innovations in agri-tech improve the safety of farm work and staff. In case you missed Farm Safety Week on social media, you can catch up on the incredible work of the agri-tech companies highlighted here.

Muddy Machines and Earth Rover

Working on farms and with machinery poses a risk of injury to even the most experienced farm workers; when temporary staff are employed on-farm, often with minimal training and little knowledge of the dangers of farm work, there is a far higher risk of serious incidents.

Robotics developers Muddy Machines and Earth Rover field robots are designed to plug the labour gap facing many farmers by automating tasks for fruit picking to crop monitoring, whilst also preventing the need for inexperienced farm workers to be employed on-farm.

While Muddy Machines’ work focus on conducting fieldwork for labour-intensive crops and Earth Rover’s Pointer, Retriever and Terrier bots help farmers reduce their reliance on chemical sprays, the farm safety element of AI and robotics in agriculture is an additional benefit.

Machine Eye

Machine Eye makes workplaces and agricultural and industrial plant safer by giving the machines “sight”. The machines are able to use deep-learning AI and computer vision to continually assess risk in real time and identify any humans who might be at risk by predicting their movement and motion and reacting accordingly.

When an unsafe interaction is detected, Machine Eye is able to raise an alarm or take action to reduce the risk safely and efficiently.

Next Gen Agri Lone Worker Management

Working alone naturally carries risk as there is no one to help raise the alarm in the event of an accident, but can be particularly dangerous in the agricultural sector due to inclement weather,  heavy machinery and remote, rural locations. It’s essential lone workers have procedures in place to ensure their safety; that’s why NextGenAgri established their Lone Worker Solution.

NextGenAgri Agricultural Lone Worker solutions ensure every worker and contractor ensuring can be tracked -and kept safe – whilst working alone, giving employees, operators and management peace of mind.

The solution works around four steps: Alert, Escalate, Report and Manage. Across agriculture, construction, engineering and other sectors, NextGenAgri’s work formalises communication, monitoring and connection to 24/7 support centres to keep lone workers safe.

Crover

Storage such as grain silos and pits pose a significant risk of drowning or crushing to workers undertaking maintenance, cleaning or even simple monitoring tasks. From assessing toxic gas levels to assembling the team and equipment required to safely check on grain storage can be time consuming and costly.

The Crover bot is able to “swim” through grain and check every corner of grain bulk using moisture and temperature sensors, meaning only the robot needs to directly access the grain and keeping workers safe. The Crover bot can also provide more accurate grain data for farmers, enabling them to make better-informed decision and prevent grain spoiling.

Farm Safety

To find out more about the Farm Safety Foundation and Farm Safety Week, visit the NFU Mutual website. You can see more of the Agri-EPI Centre members on our network page, or explore our work with innovative agri-tech companies on our project pages.

 

UK agri-tech experts and growers join forces on salad-saving robot

A robotics solution to horticultural labour shortages is being developed to help secure the availability of the UK’s favourite salad veg – the lettuce. 

Agri-tech and machinery experts at Grimme, Agri-EPI Centre, Image Development Systems, Harper Adams University and The Centre for Machine Vision at the University of the West of England, Bristol have joined forces with two of the UK’s largest lettuce growers, G’s Fresh and PDM Produce, in the new Innovate UK-funded project to develop a robotic solution to automate lettuce harvesting. 

Whole head, or iceberg, lettuce is the UK’s most valuable field vegetable crop. Around 99,000 tonnes were harvested in the UK in 2019i with a market value of £178 million. But access to reliable seasonal labour has been an increasing problem, exacerbated by Brexit and Covid 19 restrictions. Early indications are that a commercial robotic solution could reduce lettuce harvesting labour requirements by around 50%. 

Thom Graham, Vegetable Specialist at lead projects partner Grimme said: “One of the greatest challenges facing the horticulture sector is sourcing sufficient seasonal labour to conduct their harvest commitments in a timely manner. In addition, rising cost of labour with no increase in retail price has squeezed margins. Growers are looking at solutions that can reduce labour input costs and maintain their resilience in the sector and we hope our expertise can help.” 

Dermot Tobin, Managing Director of Farming at PDM said: “For many decades our business has relied on seasonal labour for harvesting lettuce. Nearly all the lettuce you see on UK supermarket shelves is cut by hand. Sourcing labour is getting really challenging and with wage inflation rising far quicker than return to grower prices margins are really tight. Our industry needs to embrace robotic technology to reduce our reliance on labour so being involved in this project is of the utmost importance to our business.” 

Richard Ellis, Innovation & Research Project Manager of G’s subsidiary Salad Harvesting Services Ltd. said: “The process of lettuce harvesting has continuously evolved over the past 30 years, with harvest, packing, date coding, boxing and palletising all completed in the field, within minutes of the crop being cut. The cutting process of an iceberg is the most technically complicated step in the process to automate. We are encouraged to be involved and see the results of this project which offers the potential to reduce reliance on seasonal labour.”   

The project will adapt existing leek harvesting machinery to lift the lettuce clear from the ground and grip it in between pinch belts. The lettuce’s outer, or ‘wrapper’, leaves will be mechanically removed to expose the stem. Machine vision will then identify a precise cut point on the stem to separate lettuce head from stem.  

A prototype robotic harvester will be developed for field trials in England towards the end of the 2021 UK season, in around September, then at G’s Espana.  

Lettuce is also a valuable crop in Europe and the US. 123,000ha of lettuce and chicory was grown in the EU in 2018ii with similar areas in the US. These areas have similar issues of access to seasonal labour, offering a significant potential market for the lettuce robot. 

Agri-tech Innovation Support for future funding

Are you an agri-tech innovator developing solutions that improve the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of agriculture? You may not realise that your new systems or processes on farm are real-life examples of agri-tech innovation – and therefore could benefit from research and development relief.

To encourage companies to invest in R&D the UK government provides incentives to companies and farm businesses that develop new products, processes and services, or enhance existing ones.

The R&D tax credits scheme allows companies to reduce their corporate tax bill or receive a tax refund based on a proportion of their R&D expenditure. The scheme can be used by any organisation liable for corporation tax in the UK and meets the necessary R&D criteria and it can even be used on unsuccessful projects. The work that qualifies for R&D tax relief must be part of a specific project which aims to make an advance in its field.

Examples of R&D in agriculture  

  • Optimisation of irrigation systems and water treatment
  • Agricultural trials involving seeds, soils and pesticides
  • Development of crop species with enhanced properties
  • Design of agricultural machinery, equipment, and agricultural structures
  • Food Engineering and the processing of agricultural products
  • Feeding trials: developing new feeds, type of feed, timing of feed, ration timing
  • Improving animal health and welfare: reducing mortality/tail biting

Agri-EPI recognises that innovation support such as the R&D tax incentive can provide businesses with a cash injection to fund further R&D and reward innovation. We are pleased to have partnered with Leyton, the UK’s largest innovation funding consultancy. to provide support and advice to Agri-EPI members and farmers to find out how their agri-tech innovations can qualify for the research and development scheme.

Matilda Hayward, Technical R&D Consultant at Leyton commented that there is a lot of misconception surrounding the types of projects which qualify for the scheme, which has resulted in a lot of companies only claiming back a small portion of what they are eligible for. The government is actively looking to support company’s investing in process and product improvements, which is a big part of running a business within the agricultural sector.

Sector examples of what can qualify

Arable

Trialling new varieties to improve yield or disease resistance | New methodologies to optimise yield | The investigation into hydroponic, aeroponic or vertical growth systems | Improving ground quality or reducing environmental impact | Modification of fertilisers to improve the absorption of minerals and nutrients | Optimisation of harvest and sorting line • Innovative use of technology – drones, sensors, scanners, software etc

Pig

Improving animal health and welfare: reducing mortality/tail biting | Reducing antibiotic usage | Feed trials or improvements to feed conversion ratio | Improvements to number of sows per litter and farrowing rate | Improvements in muscle to fat ratios/ average daily gain | Selective breeding to improve genetic trials

Poultry

Feed trials to increase egg quality / quality | Light / ventilation trials to affect outputs | Housing improvements around poultry welfare | Trialling different breeds | Improving water quality to the farm | Reducing the use antibiotics: trialling vaccines/water treatment | Delaying in maturation |Increasing the FCR (feed conversion rate) |Improvements to egg harvesting (reducing wastage / automating processes)

Dairy

Selective breeding to improve genetic traits | Reducing mortality rates and improving the health of the cow | Reducing antibiotic usage | Investigating alternative ways to reduce the risk/rate of disease | Developing new feeds to enhance milk production | Feeding trials: type of feed, the timing of feed, ration timing | Improving sustainability and decreasing environmental impact

Can you see any examples of your R&D on the list? If so, get in touch to discuss how you could qualify for R&D Tax relief, or  talk to one of Leyton’s technical team, to see how and Leyton’s expert innovation funding services can support your agri-tech innovation full details here.