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.

Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm announce robotic safety hackathon

While the advancement of autonomous farm vehicles offers clear economic and environmental benefits, its future growth also presents the new challenge of ensuring unmanned machines pose no risk to farmers, and the public crossing their land.

During Farm Safety Week (19-23 July 2021) Agri-EPI Centre and the award-winning Hands Free Farm (HFF) project have announced they will hold a hackathon to identify new solutions for robotic farming safety.

As experts in the development of autonomous farm machinery, the HFF team will integrate and evaluate the winning solution at their Midlands plot.

The event is open to any company or individual from any background.

Registration will open on 30 July on the Agri-EPI website.

 

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Director, Lisa Williams, said: “The benefits of autonomous farm machinery are many but as it becomes more commonplace in the future, and while more and more people recognise the mental health benefits of walking outdoors, it’s essential that farm automation poses no threat to the public.

“We’re excited to have Hands Free Farm on board to help us devise the hackathon and look forward to seeing the participants come up with some really innovative ideas.”

Innovate UK-funded HFF is led by Precision Decisions, with partners Farmscan Ag, Harper Adams University and Agri-EPI Centre.  It builds on an earlier project, Hands Free Hectare, in which a hectare of cereal crop was grown without any human entering the hectare of land.

Clive Blacker Clive, Director of lead partner Precision Decisions, said:

“One of the challenges of our project is that, like many typical farms, our 35ha plot includes footpaths and roads with public access.  Safety and security of the operation of autonomous machinery is of paramount importance. Addressing this issue will be critical to implementing autonomous machinery and devices in real-world commercial farming settings in the future, and gaining regulatory, market and public acceptance of the technology. We are very excited to be working with Agri-EPI to develop a robotic safety hackathon and cannot wait to see what new thinking and imagination can be applied to agriculture from any background.”

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.

 

 

Data project paves way for improved cow management and breeding

A new project combining the know-how of agri-tech experts at Agri-EPI Centre and genetics scientists at The Roslin Institute hopes to pave the way for more precise dairy cow management and breeding.

The DairyMine Project is seeking to integrate on-farm cow performance data with genomic data, by assembling a pilot dataset from project farms. The project partners will ‘mine’ the dataset (the process of finding patterns, correlations and anomalies within large data sets to predict outcomes) to develop a data-driven cow management and breeding platform for use by farmers. They will also project the impact of scaling the DairyMine to more farms.

This accessible means of viewing the whole range of information about each of their animals in one place could help farmers with day-to-day cow management, such as picking up illness at the earliest possible stage, as well offering medium to long-term impact on animal performance by supporting more accurate breeding predictions.

The project outcomes will also support training of a new generation of farm data scientists at the Easter Bush Campus in Edinburgh. In March 2021, it was announced that the Easter Bush Agritech Hub would receive £27 million from the UK Government, £1.3 million from the Scottish Government, and £31.3 million from the University of Edinburgh, as partners of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Agri-EPI Centre’s Head of Dairy, Duncan Forbes, said: “Information about the health, fertility and performance of the herd at our South West Dairy Development Centre is recorded in a variety of ways, including through multi-sensor embedded milking robots and animal wearables. Combining this wealth of data with each animal’s genomic information, which will be obtained by the team at The Roslin Institute, will allow us to consider the whole picture when it comes to making both short and longer-term management and breeding decisions.”

Gregor Gorjanc, Chancellor’s Fellow in Data-Driven Innovation for Agri-tech at The Roslin Institute explained: “While cow performance and genomic data is already available to farmers, its volume, and the lack of a single means of analysing, integrating and viewing it presents a barrier to farmers. We hope to prove that this can be achieved, bringing benefits to the dairy sector and to future researchers here in Edinburgh.”

This project is supported by the Scottish Funding Council’s Covid-19 Recovery Scheme via The University of Edinburgh’s Data-Driven Innovation initiative.

International Women In Engineering Day #IWED21

Today is International Women In Engineering Day, a day which celebrates the amazing work that women engineers around the world are doing.

Agri-EPI’s support agri-tech innovation at three key stages; pre-farmgate development, commercial farm applications and primary product quality. In this post we wanted to highlight three women on International Women in Engineering Day who engineer solutions to enhance agriculture and the environment.

Dr. Sophie Purser, MIRICO 
Sophie began her career as a chemist working as a scientist and then Business Development Manager for a speciality chemicals company in Oxfordshire. She then moved briefly to working with medical devices, before joining MIRICO in 2019 as Commercial Manager. MIRICO are using a revolutionary new technology for gas analysis and want to bring the benefits of the technology to those working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Paula Misiewicz MSc MEng PhD AMIAgrE, Senior lecturer in Soil and Water Management, Harper Adams University

Dr Paula’s research interests are centered around Soil and Water Management and Precision Farming. Current research projects are focused on exploring traffic and tillage interactions using field scale experiments:

Conventional tyre inflation pressure
Low tyre inflation pressure
Controlled traffic farming
Deep, shallow and zero tillage systems
I am also interested in soil mechanics, specifically in soil and tyre interractions: The Evaluation of The Soil Pressure Distribution and Carcass Stiffness Resulting from Pneumatic Agricultural Tyres.

Current PhD supervision: 2 students

Dr Alex Cooke CEnv, MIAgrE is another notable recent PhD (hers from Cranfield) who is having an impact in the Water Management sector. She is the Principal Catchment Scientist at Severn Trent Water and leads their Catchment Management team. She recently presented a ‘lunchtime lecture’ for IAgrE (as well as a guided tour of a water treatment plant for IAgrE members pre-Covid). In her lecture last week she explained how ‘nature-based solutions’ are being adopted as business-as-usual within the water and wastewater industry to deliver assets that provide more for the communities they serve, and the wider environment. This is building on her PhD research which examined “Compost filter socks to control sediment and phosphorus losses from arable land associated with extreme rainfall events”. Farming for Water – Nature based solutions – Dr Alex Cooke CEnv MIAgrE – YouTube

A thank you to The Douglas Bomford Trust for highlighting Dr Paula Misiewicz MSc MEng PhD AMIAgrE, Senior lecturer in Soil and Water Management, Harper Adams University and Dr Alex Cooke MIAgrE CEnv: Catchment Management Scientist.

The objective of The Douglas Bomford Trust is to advance knowledge, understanding, practice, and competence in the application of engineering and technology to achieve sustainable agricultural, food and biological systems for the benefit of the environment and mankind.

New Agri-informatics facility opens to help accelerate digital adoption in agriculture

A new £3.2 million Agri-informatics facility has been officially opened by the Rt. Hon. George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Agri-EPI Centre, Cranfield University and its partners will share the facility to create informatics in support of innovative business, management and policy approaches for the agricultural sector.

Environment Secretary, George Eustice believes that the new centre will ensure that planned agricultural policies are “underpinned with world-leading science.”

Fostering collaboration between the industry and academia

“We are delighted to share this key facility at Cranfield,” said Agri-EPI Centre CEO, Dave Ross. “It will complement our existing facilities and allow us to foster collaborations with both industry and academia to meet the significant productivity and environmental challenges facing the agri-food sector, now and in the future.”

The site has been funded by Cranfield University and Innovate UK through Agri-EPI and the Wolfson Foundation.

The Environment Secretary, George Eustice, said: “Cranfield has a world-leading role in driving agricultural innovation and development and I was pleased to open the new facility today. Soil health is central to delivering our objectives on biodiversity and profitable agriculture and this new centre will ensure that the policies we plan are underpinned with world-leading science.”

Leon Terry, the university’s Director of Environment and Agrifood had this to say: “By utilising data science, we can create new technological interventions that will improve crop yields, improve soil health and reduce food waste. All of these things are vital to reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production.”

Accelerating adoption of precision data agriculture

Agri-EPI’s activities at the new site will focus on agri-tech research and innovation. Our work will accelerate the development and adoption of engineering technology and precision data agriculture, which will in turn boost sustainable productivity across the entire agri-food chain.

Ian Cox, Agri-Tech Centres Lead at Innovate UK said: “I am delighted that this new joint facility, part funded by Innovate UK, is now open. It will expand the capabilities of both Agri-EPI and Cranfield University, and will help to address some of the major challenges – facing not only the UK but the world – around how we feed everybody sustainably.

“The facility will help to drive forward the competitiveness of the UK’s growing agri-tech sector into the next decade and beyond.”