Agri-tech - Agri-EPI Centre - engineering precision agriculture

Agri-tech

Agricultural technology, agri-tech or agritech, describes the use of technology in agriculture, aquaculture and horticulture to help improve efficiency, yield and profitability. The Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI Centre) is one of four agri-tech centres established by the UK Government. Agri-EPI Centre focuses on the delivery of research, development, demonstration and training on precision agriculture and engineering for the livestock, arable, horticulture and aquaculture sectors.

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.

Agri-EPI expands robotics and data offering

Agri-EPI has developed its robotics and data offering, including the addition of 4 new members to their engineering team over the last couple of months.

Eliot Dixon, Head of Agri-Tech (Engineering) explains:

“Over the last few months Agri-EPI has been investing heavily in its engineering team, bringing on several new members, enabling us to offer a set of services to assist in the creation of agri-tech products. The team of platform and spectral imaging experts uses our fleet of sensors and specialist software to deliver a range of sensing products such as ground truthing for AI model generation, or the creation of digital twins. We are also now able to offer UAV and UGV platforms as a means to test novel sensors and end-effectors without the need for a bespoke vehicle. And through working closely with our innovation farm network, we are creating a heavily layered source of evidence for developers using our farm network to design and test their innovations.”

Agri-EPI’s new GIS Data Analyst, Yingwang Gao, majored in Agricultural Engineering, and has a PhD degree specialising in Hyperspectral Imaging Applications, as well as postdoc experience working as Research Associate. In addition to a strong academic background, he has accumulated several years of industrial work experience, mainly on spectral imaging systems, R&D, and spectral imaging data analysis in various application domains. He has a strong passion for remote sensing and photogrammetry. At Agri-EPI, he takes care of data acquisition and data processing from different types of sensors, including RGB, multispectral, hyperspectral, LiDAR, and GPR, to identify and map out features of interest in the agricultural sector, to help farmers with better decision-making in agricultural management.

Agri-EPI’s new R&D Equipment Technician, Aditya Jadhav, pursued his bachelors in aeronautical engineering, where he learned various aspects of flying machines. He set up an aeromodelling club with a few of his classmates where they designed, built and tested various configurations of small UAVs. The MSc program for Autonomous vehicle dynamics and control was structured for students to gain a deeper understanding of unmanned systems. Aditya was part of a group project that built a surveillance system with a swarm of autonomous drones, and an individual project sponsored by the Railway Safety and Standards Board which aimed to design and develop an autonomous vehicle which can operate in a station environment. The advancements in robotics and the urgent need of integrating robotics with sustainable agriculture were the driving forces for him deciding to work in the agri-tech sector. As the R&D Equipment Technician, Aditya looks after all the deployable assets that are in service to the company, which includes maintenance, asset tracking and deployment, and organising the logistics.

Panagis Tzivras, Agri-EPI’S new GIS Software Engineer, is a GIS expert with strong technical skills who is highly invested in programming. In his previous roles working with startups and the commercial sector, he was involved in data collection and extraction, maintaining data pipelines and building geospatial processes and automation updates. At Agri-EPI Centre he is helping to leverage the measurement resources of the centre to create high quality dataset and support systems. He is working on creating tools and code to enable the automation of data collection from a wide variety of sources available to Agri-EPI Centre.

Lastly, Aidan Robertson has joined the Agri-EPI Engineering team as their new Graduate Data Analyst. Aidan’s background is in mathematics, which he studied at University of Warwick for four years before looking for jobs related to data science. He is very pleased to be part of the Agri-EPI team in quite a varied role; so far, he has been working on projects related to the health and wellbeing of cows, specifically by reformatting farm datasets to be sent out for analysis. Soon, there are plans for him to begin a more ambitious project to develop a costings estimator for RAS in agriculture. This is a long-term task, but the ultimate goal would be to offer it as a service for farmers looking to introduce robotic systems into their farms. The most interesting part of agri-tech for Aidan is the data, and what it actually says about the performance of a system, as well as what can be done to help the problems being faced by the agri-tech sector at present.

Spray UAV

Agricultural drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are set to disrupt the agriculture industry owing to their immense potential to make agriculture more efficient, precise, and productive, driving the economic case for drone use.

With farmers grappling with mounting pressure to boost production while adapting to climate change and dealing with increasing costs of production and changing support frameworks, drones present a compelling solution to improve the efficiency of the entire farming enterprise.

Growers and their advisors can exploit the technology for data collection to identify stressed areas of crops, study and map farmland, and improve irrigation efficiency. In addition to spraying water, fertilisers or pesticides on crops, drones can be used for livestock monitoring and tracking animal population and health.

Precision farming is all about making the right decisions at the right times, in the right quantity and right locations, and that is where spray UAV’s come into play.

UAV System (DJI AGRAS T10):

  • Automatically fly to a task route and avoid obstacles that have been marked in field planning
  • D-RTK can be used for centimeter-level positioning
  • Clear views of the front and rear of the aircraft thanks to the dual FPV cameras
  • UAV equipped with the Spherical Perception Radar System, providing functions such as terrain following, obstacle sensing, and obstacle circumventing.

Spraying System:

  • An 8L spray tank, four nozzles, and a 2-channel electromagnetic flow meter that provides even and accurate spraying for saving liquid and reducing operating costs
  • Variable rate fertilization by importing prescription maps to the remote controller and applying them to fields
  • Spray width of up to 5 meters allow the aircraft to cover up to 15 acres/hour

The application potential of this drone includes farmland fertilisation and infestation/disease control of crops. We offer this UAV as a service to help researchers in UAV spraying to explore how it integrates with current agricultural systems, especially in the context of UK legislation in the area.

For information on renting out our technical assets please contact team@agri-epicentre.com

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.

Our offer

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.