January 2023 - Agri-EPI Centre

Special interest group discusses agri robotics and automation solutions

Photo from L-R (Rebecca Lewis, David Rose, Marc Jones, Eliot Dixon) outside the Southern Crop Technology Hub. 

Agri-EPI hosted a Special interest group focussed on agricultural robotics and automation technologies at their Cranfield Innovation Hub on Tuesday, 18th January. The event brought together farmers, technology developers and academics to discuss the development of robotics and automation solutions for agriculture.

The session was led by Eliot Dixon, Head of Engineering at Agri-EPI, with panel guests Professor David Rose, Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems at Cranfield Environment Centre, Marc Jones, Business Director at Antobot, and Agri-EPI innovation farmer Niall Jeffrey of Bielgrange Farm.

Rebecca Lewis, New Business and Proposals Manager at Agri-EPI, also provided an update on funding opportunities linked to robotics such as ‘Farming Futures: automation and robotics, industrial research‘ from the Farming Futures R&D fund.

The special interest group was held as part of the centre’s farm research and development offering which includes a network of commercial farms for trialling and validating technology, and a farmer membership aimed at knowledge exchange, the ‘Farm Tech Circle

Rebecca said:

“The farmer input is vital when it comes to talking about developing technology, we need to hear from them about how the tech could impact their business and fit in to their current systems and what their needs are.”

Key discussion points from the session included:

  • Farm infrastructure challenges – particularly around terrain, digital capacity, energy, storage and data.
  • Labour employment and tech development – health and safety, regulation, skills, knowledge, de-skilling, re-skilling, new skills.
  • Performance and technology readiness (repair, reliability, relevance, regulations).

The session lasted over two hours with break-out sessions followed by a networking lunch. From this session we aim to start building consortia for robotics and automation solutions for agriculture. If you are interested in finding out more from this session get in touch via team@agri-epicentre.com.

Useful resources for agri robotics and automation development:

  1. Enhancing the safety and security of autonomous agricultural vehicles
  2. Farm Network
  3. Technical robotics asset
  4. Robotics and automation solution offering
  5. Funding opportunities
  6. Agri-tech Investment Advisory

Agri-EPI is a partner of choice for agri-tech developers (from start-ups through to established companies). Our aim is to help develop profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farms.

Presenting your agri-tech product

By: Amber Barton, Market Insight & Proposals Lead

Agri-EPI Centre helps develop precision tech solutions to empower more sustainable farms. But once the solution has been trialled and tested, how do we communicate the benefits and enable uptake of the tech? Amber Barton provides tips on what’s important when presenting about your agri-tech product.

Tip number 1. Too much background, waffle, and unnecessary information is not required, nor desired. Focus on you and your product

Keep your presentation direct and to the point.

Use real life examples from trialling your tech on-farm – admit what worked well and what didn’t and how this has been addressed.

Provide video footage to demonstrate your technology in action. Video phone footage would be fine.

Use photos and importantly, remember to introduce yourself, your team, and your backgrounds.

Tip 2: Presentation structure should centre around the product, cost, and application

What is your product/ service?

This should be one slide. It should be direct and easy to understand for someone unfamiliar with the subject matter.

What does your product/ service do?

This is your use case and should be a call to action. It should still be explained simply and directly but it’s your chance to appeal to them in a more emotive way. Use facts and figures, but only if they are strong enough to make someone think “WOW”.  Do you know your facts and figures if questioned?

How much does it cost?

You have told the farmers what your product/ service is and now they want to know if it is worth investing any more time listening to you. They will do this by assessing what the cost is to them. You could present something to them that is pure magic, but if it’s not financially viable then you are wasting their time (something they do not have a lot of). Make use of this valuable opportunity. If you are at this stage, then you should already be confident that your product is being produced at a cost that is agreeable to them so it shouldn’t need to be hidden. More on presenting costs can be found further down the page.

How is it practically applied?

You have told them you have something that will make their life easier/ save them money etc. Now decision makers  need to know how this will practically fit into their system. You may not know what kit they use or how they farm, but they do, and if they want to use what you’re selling then they will be open to making it fit or speaking about the possibilities. You just need to tell them the requirements. Is it sprayed? If so, how? Is it pulled behind something? If so, what are its power requirements? Is it robotic? What are the power/ connectivity requirements? Does it require mapping in advance? What is the timeframe needed for this to take place? Give them the facts and figures to help them see how this could fit into their own set up.

Is there training need?

Who is going to be using this? Is it them? Their agronomist? Is it simple enough for anyone on the farm to operate? Have these details to hand and any cost associated with them, including training time. Is it a 1-hour module or a two-day course with top up sessions etc.

How will your solution benefit them?

Round things off by highlighting any direct or indirect benefits your product will have. Think outside the box. Benefits to the bottom line are often at the top of this list but is there anything else that might not be so obvious?  Environmental benefits? Farmers are stewards of the land after all. Work life balance benefits? Will time saving help them get home to their families any quicker? Really put yourself into their shoes and consider the wider picture.

Value of your product

If you can show them this, in real terms, then they are far more likely to get on board and work positively with you.

So how can you help to “Onboard” farmers through considered costings?

First you need to understand their operating environment and their cost of production (COP). Most farm enterprises don’t have huge profit margins. As such, your product needs to either save them money in an existing area (e.g., labour saving) or enable them to increase the value of their product in a significant way. That is tricky in most farming sectors.

If you have a product that saves labour, then you need to know what the labour cost element of the total COP is and ideally you need to show that your product fits within that, or even reduces it. I will use labour costs in tabletop strawberry growing as an example:

Redman, G., 2022. The John Nix Pocketbook for Farm Management 2023. 53rd ed. Published: Melton Mowbray: Agro Business Consultants

Using this example from John Nix we can see that the costs for labour are mostly in the fieldwork, harvesting and grading/ packing areas which comes to between £31,676/ ha for low output and £54,129/ ha for high output production.

If you can show how your product offsets cost in actual figures, then there is a tangible benefit.

If your product costs £50,000 but provides a labour saving of 25%/ ha then you can show the benefit to the bottom line, the payback period etc. In this example a high performing farm would see the payback within one year across less than 4 hectares. You can then discuss the other benefits, such as not having to manage as many people (something that often causes the farm manager the most headaches) or helping to overcome the struggle to secure the labour in the first place.

There are a few places to find COP information – John Nix Pocketbook and ABC’s “The agricultural Budgeting and costing book” are a good place to start for a comprehensive guide. The AHDB also does a lot or work on farm economics and their Farmbench programme has a lot of good data.

Showing farmers you have a good understanding of what you are trying to help them achieve will go a long way to helping you achieve success in this sector.

Collaboration essential for successful agri-robotics

By: Eliot Dixon, Head of Engineering at Agri-EPI Centre

Robotics has several strong applications in agriculture, especially in scenarios where systems can enhance the productivity of a shrinking workforce or can offer production efficiencies to the farm. However, to be successful in these applications the systems created need be reliable, in terms of long-term physical robustness but also in the ability of their control software to handle the very wide variety of scenarios they will encounter in a farming environment. This means the robots must be both well designed and well tested to meet the needs of farmers. This includes a design which emphasises safety and reliability.

“Understanding user requirements and testing in-field is key”

Good design requires a deep understanding of the needs and requirements of farmers and their farming systems. This extends from the core values held by a farmer, such as safety, which dictate their decisions; through to very specific requirements created by the unique combination of their way of working and the land they work. If this understanding is not achieved for a farming system, then there is a very high chance that the eventual product will be unsuitable, either creating a failed product or a long development timeline to solve the deficiencies. Gaining this understanding should come through working with a wide variety of farms within the target market for the technology, not just a small handful. In many agricultural sectors this design stage is especially important due to the limited testing season and ability to iterate on the design.

Testing is also well understood to be important to creating a reliable product, and in agriculture this does require a close collaboration with farmers to ensure that the robot meets their needs. As these are complex machines, which are also often dangerous if not created with a strong safety process, the testing regime should also be rigorous enough to ensure that the system will function to the desired reliability for all the design requirements. A rigorous testing regime would usually require multiple tests for each requirement across multiple operational scenarios such as different weather conditions, soil types, dangers, failure modes, crops etc. Failure to complete this testing will certainly result in the robotic system encountering situations which it is unable to function within, which may create unfortunate repercussions for the user or manufacturer. Unfortunately, completing this massive number of tests requires a range of test facilities, some of which might be beyond the capability of a company focussing on a small range of agricultural applications.

In our 2021 hackathon we explore safety and security. Outcomes are discussed in our white paper here:

Hackathon white paper

As mentioned, good design and testing is essential to creating successful products, but this unfortunately comes with a high cost. Doing this for the wide range of complex operating scenarios in UK agriculture, as well as the short testing cycles, is driving up the cost of developing agricultural robots. There are a multitude of Agri-robotics companies in the UK creating their systems from almost the ground up, each of which are individually bearing the cost in time and money of this development. This creates barriers to adoption in terms of high costs, a limited set of operations which can be conducted by robots, or low reliability due to poor engineering, and is increasing the amount of time it takes for products to get to market. As in all development the saying “Good, Cheap, Fast. Pick two”, is very much in action here but some very pressing needs mean we must find ways to break that deadlock.

Collaboration enables future opportunities for robotic systems

The obvious solution for this deadlock is to massively increase collaboration between ag-robotics developers. This has been proposed for many years, but we are yet to see a viable solution to this. Direct collaboration is currently difficult for commercial reasons with developers competing for the same money, but also for technical reasons where it is challenging to share components between robots. Perhaps a solution for this is to build an ecosystem of adaptable, compatible, components and platforms which can be used to create a multitude of agricultural robotic systems. This ecosystem of components would also be able to be robustly tested to ensure reliability when integrated as part of a larger system. Thus, the costs of development would be increasingly shared, without any single robotics manufacturer losing income as they are all developing for specific agricultural niches. Using a set of well proven components would allow developers to focus on ensuring good understanding and design for specific problems in agriculture, while also allowing for easier integration and testing of the robots.

Robotics in agriculture is a promising field, and with the right design and testing, as well as collaboration between developers, it could be a great success. By understanding the needs and requirements of farmers and using that to create an ecosystem of components and platforms, robots can be developed which are high value, robust, reliable and safe. With the right approach, agricultural robotics could benefit farmers across the UK and worldwide. Read our robotics and automation article to understand more about how we can support you to develop a robust well tested solution through collaborative R&D today.