Agri-tech - Page 2 of 16 - 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.

Autonomous and robotics solutions for agriculture and horticulture

By: Duncan Ross

Farming has been embracing evolving autonomous technology for many years. Milking robots are now commonplace and accounted for 30% of all new installations in the UK in 2015 (Heyden, 2015). By that time, robotic milkers had been adopted by 5% of UK farms (ibid.).

Satellite navigation and variable rate application of fertiliser and seed, and chemical spraying using “green on brown” (only spraying green weeds identified in stubbles) or more latterly “green on green” (identifying target weed species in grass leys), are developments that have been based on existing machinery platforms which growers are comfortable with as they are seen to be familiar.

The leap to the next level of robotics and autonomy is a step most growers have yet to take, as barriers to adoption including integration, costs, and skills which all hamper uptake. Despite this, Agri-Tech developers are keen to move their products forward in their capability, learning from grower experiences and interactions, and breaking down those barriers.

One of the major reasons for robotics adoption is access to labour, both seasonal and full time, with rising wage pressures and competition from other sectors in the economy. This is especially apparent in the horticulture sector with many operations still requiring large numbers of people.

There is a vast range of alternative robotics solutions being created which can be categorised into different types:

Large autonomous platforms that perform the same functions as conventional tractor/implement combinations but without a driver, such as those from John Deere and CNH and a smaller offering from AgXeed. TAFE are developing an autonomous electric drive train tractor, and Hands-Free Farm have been converting conventional Iseki tractors to be autonomous during research projects at Harper Adams University, both adapting conventional smaller machinery.

Scouting for incidence of stress (heat, pests, disease, or weeds) has led several companies to develop combined or standalone solutions. Companies are also investigating how to mount sensors on robotic platforms to capture more representative data from pest and spore traps that are currently left in one position in a field.

Weeding such as Small Robot Company’s combined solution using two separate robots, one to map a field and another to treat it with low powered lasers. Standalone solutions from NAIO, BAKUS use machine vision and AI to identify and cultivate weeds, whilst Earthrover uses light systems for control. FarmDroid works in a different way as it plants crop and maps the precise location so that it can return post establishment and weed around the plant. Nissan have developed a Duckrobot that swims in paddy field and removes weeds.

Spraying of orchards with the GUSS robotic platform which is a direct replacement of tractor and driver. Robots that can identify pests and disease with artificial intelligence and on-the-edge processing will allow those infected areas to be treated and not the entire crop, saving significant cost in agrochemicals as well as being more environmentally sustainable.

Crop scouting being developed by Antobot to count fruit numbers in orchards and strawberry tunnels, assessing maturity and yield, providing data beneficial for resourcing of staff and accurate prediction of produce to marketing cooperatives and retail supply chains.

Soil sampling on robotic platforms from E-Nano and GMV NSL will give far greater granularity on soil nutrient status and possible organic matter content. By precision mapping a field, a robot can return to the same spot several years later and sample again, to ascertain how regenerative management practice may have improved soil health.

Harvesting is probably the hardest area to crack but also the greatest need for growers to save labour input. This could be picking top fruit with developments by Tevel, Octinion, Agrobot and RootAI, soft fruit with SAGA, Dogtooth and Field Robotics, asparagus with Muddy Machines, and broccoli with Earthrover. Currently the degree of computer processing power needed to replicate human hand-eye coordination means all the platforms are slow compared to existing picker rates and need further development and refinement before they can gain parity and be considered a viable alternative to an experience picker.

However, an area that is seen as really labour saving is the logistics platforms being developed by BurroAI, Antobot and Fox Robotics, where the harvested fruit is moved around the plantation by a robot, delivered to a central point and returning to the harvesting location with empty trays. This prevents the need for harvest staff carrying fruit to the central point and allows them to do what they do best which is keep on picking, thus maximising use of available labour.

Automation and robotics will have a wide impact on the agriculture and horticulture sector in the future, replacing humans in menial tasks, simultaneously creating higher skilled jobs attractive to different people. Data capture and processing will allow growers to have far more visibility of their growing crops, providing information for better decision making on targeted interventions of irrigation, fertiliser, Agro-chemicals, and labour resource. This will enhance financial and environmental farm businesses and assist the drive towards a net-zero agricultural sector.

Drones help farm plan for sustainable future

A forward-thinking farmer has teamed up with agri-tech experts to help develop drone technology to head off the effects of future labour shortages.

Paul Hayward, of Cold Harbour Farm in Yorkshire, is working with the Agri-EPI Centre in Edinburgh to find new ways to work more efficiently.

He said:

“Our business uses skilled local people. They are tech literate but there’s no doubt we’re not getting younger people through so increasingly we will face staffing challenges.”

A current project the farm is working on with Agri-EPI involves making better use of drone technology by extending the use and application of it – and Paul said the training supplied by Agri-EPI would be particularly beneficial.

He said:

“We can fly it and take some images, but it is all about making best use of those images quickly and translating them onto a piece of kit that will go onto the field and do the job.

“If you could feed that information from the drone into the controller for the fertiliser spreader, or something like that, it would be a great help.

“Drone technology could ultimately help with timeliness, precision application and, not replacing people, but making people’s time more effective.”

The drone project is just one of the collaborations the farm has taken part in since being introduced to Agri-EPI by LEAF – Linking Environment and Farming. LEAF aims to show that intensive agriculture is consistent with caring for the environment, and Cold Harbour has been a demonstration farm since 1993.

Paul added:

“A network like Agri-EPI, which brings together knowledge, expertise, innovation and funding know-how, is not just a mutually beneficial arrangement for our business, it’s necessary to make progress.

“Individuals just can’t do what Agri-EPI do, you just can’t. You have to realise your limitations. It’s got to be a team approach.”

Cold Harbour Farm, near Beverley, has been in the same family since 1889 and covers 300 hectares. It is a largely arable farm, with some beef cattle. The farm is also part of The Green Pea Company, a co-operative of 250 farms growing vining peas for the Birds Eye factory in nearby Hull.

An unused cowshed at the farm has also been converted into Calf House Studios, a collection of affordable studio and workshop spaces for local artists and craftspeople.

For more information about the Agri-EPI Centres, visit www.agri-epicentre.com/ For information about Cold Harbour Farm, visit www.cold-harbour-farm.co.uk/

 

Cold Harbour Farm case study

Hyperspectral UAV

Agri-EPI Centre has invested in the Hyperspectral UAV.

Compared to multispectral imagery, hyperspectral imagery measures energy in narrower and more numerous bands, thus giving much more information on target. Hyperspectral image data is 3D cube, where each pixel holds a full spectrum across the range. Since spectra are as unique as ‘fingerprints’ to target, hyperspectral imagery can unveil features that multispectral imagery may miss out on.

Hyperspectral imaging technology has been under research for decades and has been demonstrated to be very powerful in many application areas including agriculture. Especially in recent years, with a more robust and rugged imaging product embedded onto the UAV platform, agri-tech has seen revolutionary improvements.

The HySpex turnkey UAV solution with Mjolnir VS-620 and Lidar includes all the necessary hardware and software for flight planning, data collection, data processing and calibration. The system is provided with a UAV platform, 3-axis gimbal mount for the hyperspectral unit with Lidar and corresponding spectral calibration, radiometric calibration and geometric calibration. The geometric calibration includes a sensor model for VNIR and SWIR hyperspectral sensor heads, subpixel co-alignment of the 2 sensor heads, boresight calibration of the 2 sensor heads and internal IMU system, boresight calibration of the Lidar unit and internal IMU system.

There’s a broad application potential, including assisting in the development of products in the following application areas:
• Drought/water/nutrient stress monitoring
• Plant pathogens detection
• Analysis of soil properties/Determination of soil types
• Land mapping
• Yield forecasting
• Land management

UAV System (XQ-1400S BFD HySpex Edition):
1. <25 kg MTOW with Mjolnir and gimbal
2. Up to 25 min flight endurance with 8 kg payload
3. Fitted with high performance GNSS/GPS and IMU to enable data to be captured to high geolocation accuracy
4. Fitted with advanced 3-axis digital gimbal to compensate for the pitching

Sensing System (HySpex Mjolnir VS-620, Velodyne VLP-32C) :
1. Fully-integrated co-aligned hyperspectral visible and near-infrared (VNIR) and short-wave infrared (SWIR) (400 – 2500nm) and LiDAR sensors, along with in-flight data capture and storage system
2. Spectral coverage of 400 – 2500 nm, with spectral resolution of 3 nm in VNIR and 5.1 nm over SWIR range. Bit resolution 12bit in VNIR and 16 bit in SWIR.
3. Double resolution data in the VNIR range
4. High-resolution (0.33 degree) LiDAR sensor, with 360° surround view with real-time 3D data

They Hyperspectral UAV has potential use as groundtruth technology for other technologies/systems as well.

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

Data-capture and use focus of innovation farm walk

Data-capture and use is the focus of a farm walk at one of Agri-EPI Centre’s technology and innovation trial farms.

The event will take place at Upper Nisbet Farm, Jedburgh, by kind permission of farmers Robert and Jac Neill, on Tuesday 11 October.

Participants will be able to hear about the Neills’ experience of implementing new technology on the farm in conjunction with Agri-EPI Centre, including Crover, the grain-monitoring robot, which burrows into stored grain to check moisture levels and temperature. The Neills also utilise machinery and equipment from Agri-EPI Centre members John Deere, Keenan and Trutest who will talk about their technology.

Robert Neill said:

“The farming industry needs new technology and there are some things that are already delivering really good results at Upper Nisbet. My experience with GPS has been unbelievably good; I can drill crops with much greater precision, meaning I don’t sow in inefficiency at the start of the season. If I know that the combine is exactly where it is meant to be, I can concentrate on other settings, such as keeping the header full. It also means I’m much less exhausted at the end of the day.”

Ross Robertson, head of mixed farming at Agri-EPI Centre said:

“The farming industry needs new technology to become more efficient. Some things have potential and some don’t, but this doesn’t always become clear until they are trialled on working farms.

“Agri-EPI Centre works with arable and livestock farms the length and breadth of the UK, enabling us to undertake and research new technology, commercial trials and data analysis in as many different situations as possible. I am really looking forward to hearing how Robert and Jac are getting on with the technology at Upper Nisbet and to learning about what works and where they see opportunities for development.”

Multi-sensor VTOL UAV

Agri-tech has undergone tremendous improvements with the introduction of remote sensing technologies, making many agricultural properties that were difficult to achieve before now accessible.

Multi-Spectral imaging has been widely used on satellites (e.g. Landsat) for earth observation science at a global scale. In the agricultural domain, UAVs as a platform have played a major role utilising various payload sensors including multi-spectral imaging.

The advantage of multi-spectral imaging is that it extends human sight sensitivity beyond the visible spectrum. Some wavelengths that are widely recognised for applications, such as the normalised difference vegetative index (NDVI), can be deployed into multi-spectral imaging. Nonetheless, it has been proved to be very useful in many other fields, greatly empowering the advancement of agriculture. The adoption of UAVs has made it possible to achieve large-scale mapping and thus better agricultural management.

Agri-EPI Centre has invested in the Multi-spectral VTOL UAV which has a potential use as ground truth technology for other technologies and/or systems.

This UAV and sensing payload system can also be used for a variety of fruit orchard use-cases which include:
• Estimation of leaf area index
• Estimation of canopy volume
• Estimation of water stress
• Fruit biomass estimation
• Temperature variation across the orchard
• Temperature variation of specific plants over time
• Fruit count estimation

It can also be used in other agricultural areas which include:
• Pest infestation detection
• Quantity moisture levels
• Analyse wildlife damage
• Vegetation index creation like NDVI
• Crop counting
• Create 3D photogrammetry maps

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

Agri-EPI hosts agri-tech focused tour for New Zealand delegation

This month Agri-EPI hosted a visit from Callaghan Innovation and Agritech New Zealand.

Beginning with a visit to one of their satellite farms, Kaiapoi Farm, farmer Robert Hodgkins showcased his new sheep dairy and discussed the realities of farming in the UK and opportunities for deployment of agri-tech.

Agri-EPI works with an extensive network of real commercial farms and research facilities in the UK and internationally, offering a platform through which innovators can verify the effectiveness of their new idea or technology in practice.Their farm network is key to connecting farmers with technology developers, advancing the adoption of agri-tech and enhancing the sustainability of farm businesses.

The next leg of the visit involved a tour of Agri-EPI’s new Agri-informatics building at Cranfield University and the shared Agri-EPI Centre and Crop Health & Protection – CHAP phenotyping glasshouse facility, a superb asset for companies to use for R&D and trials. They were joined there by representatives from the university, CHAP, and Innovate UK.

With a stopover to UK Dairy Day, they watched Agri-EPI members at MilktechNZ showcase their award winning CR-1 electronic cup removers, followed by a visit to Harper Adams University where Hands Free Farm demonstrated their autonomous combine harvester in action.

The final stop was Agri-EPI’s Midlands Agri-tech Innovation Hub where networking and discussions around UK funding and the potential for future collaboration took place.

Jane Lycett, International Business Development Manager at Agri-EPI, who coordinated the visit, said:

“It was great to host an inward mission of innovative agri-tech companies, led by Callaghan Innovation and Agritech New Zealand. The visit provided an opportunity to showcase a number of Agri EPI Centre’s facilities and expertise and discuss areas for future collaboration between UK and New Zealand.”

Specialising in connecting knowledgeable experts and new solutions across the agricultural sectors, Agri-EPI aims to help deliver profitable and sustainable cutting-edge technologies to market.