R&D in Automation and Robotics for agriculture
By: Eliot Dixon
Agri-EPI, the centre for precision innovation in farming, is a first choice for agri-tech developers, from start-ups right through to established companies, to help with creating robust and commercially viable agricultural solutions.
I am Eliot Dixon, the Head of Engineering at Agri-EPI. I have a technical background in automotive engineering which has taught me the importance of good systems engineering, but also am lucky enough to be part of a family with an active farming business. These dual backgrounds have shown me that it is vital that agri-tech solutions are built on well described initial design goals created from a strong understanding of the needs of farmers and their operations. If that is not done, then there will be delays in the development of the product and eventually quality, which will have ongoing negative effects on the trust of farmers in the product.
This is especially necessary in agricultural robotics, where highly complex technical systems and operating environments coupled with a very short testing season gives very little room for mistakes or iteration.
Precision innovation aim
Our aim is to guide developers through the innovation process of understanding their design requirements and creating and testing their new technology. This ensures that farmers gain access to profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farming.
As a company we do this through a wide-ranging set of facilities, equipment, and services that cover data, spectral imaging, data analysis and modelling, real world testing facilities and robotic platforms for validation and trials.
Key resources include:
- Academic links with leading agri-robotics universities
- A commercial farm network to develop system requirements and conduct in-field testing
- Project management
- Consortia building
- Development services and equipment services for developers
- Delivery Team
My technical background is in intelligent robotics, enabling robotics to understand and react to their environment, which I see as a key component in a robust agri-robotics system. The offering of the team and wider organisation is shaped by this to enable us to deliver many of the needs of developers working with intelligent robotics.
Our team is a resource that can be accessed as a service for any UK organisation who would like to join us in a commercial or research collaboration. We help in the development process through a combination of a strong team and a world class set of equipment and facilities.
My team is made of specialists from multiple technical domains. Between us we have academic backgrounds in ground robotics, aerial robotics, computer science, physics, mathematics and spectral imaging, and have employment experience in academia, defence, automotive, aerospace, agri-tech and manufacturing. The engineering team works as part of the wider technical team, delivering on our promise of development support from ideation right through to commercialisation.
Our farm network is a key part of this, enabling the testing spaces and long-term interaction with farmers which we rely upon. The team also works outside of the farm network with our deployable equipment, which is the major topic of this article. We will take a closer look at our farm network data offering in a future article.
Whilst I’m very proud of the skills of the team, we do also have an extremely exciting set of resources at our disposal which we are very keen to share. When looking at this from a robotics point of view, our services can broadly be split into two categories: platforms and sensors. Both sets of services are operated from our hub at Cranfield University.
At Agri-EPI we see the need to develop a UGV or UAV platform for a specific agri-tech product as something which slows down development of new applications of those technologies. Therefore, we have invested in manufacturer-independent development platforms which allow sensors and end-effectors to be created without needing to create a bespoke system or work directly with a platform developer. This allows collaboration with platform providers to happen only when the requirements of the sensors/end-effectors are fully understood. Our most interesting offers here are our UGVs, Sam and Frodo, and our multi-purpose UAV platform. These can be quickly adapted to almost any agricultural scenario and have the onboard processing power to unlock their full capabilities as a platform. Members of the team have extensive experience working with platforms such as these.
We are also aware that some sensing technologies which might be extremely useful for robotics development, especially in the domain of spectral imaging, are a very large investment in terms of equipment cost and personnel, and can be difficult for developers to justify even if the returns can be large. For this reason, we continue to invest in our sensing capabilities and our ability to analyse that data, and we share that resource as a common capability for UK Agri-Tech. We provide high quality sensing across a broad range of technologies, including hyperspectral, SIF imaging, multi-spectral, ground penetrating radar and LiDAR. Almost all these sensors are airborne and are useful for creating data sets used in machine learning training, agronomy, simulations, and system validation. They are particularly useful for the arable domain, but we can modify the way we deploy them for most other agricultural domains.
For both services (platforms, and sensors) we offer a service provision from creation of the initial testing plans right through to a delivery of analysed data. Planning of operations is conducted in-house, especially in the case of our UAV mounted systems, and we also undertake post-processing of sensor data using the spectral imaging expertise of the team and a suite of industry leading software.
If you are an agri-tech developer who has a particular interest in robotics, or you require assistance in using some difficult sensors, then we would love to hear from you. Get in touch here or fill out this form.