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Bringing you news, opinion and innovation in technological advances in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture, check out the Agri-EPI blog.
Exploring precision farming, including engineering, technology and innovation in UK agriculture across crops, land management and livestock, our blog includes input from our broad sector membership and academic partners the length and breadth of the UK.
Offering you ideas and innovation from national and international projects and initiatives, don’t miss out!

Agri-EPI Centre marks Farm Safety Week 2021

Farming is one of the UK’s most dangerous industries to work in; despite making up just 1% of workers, farmers and their employees accounting for as many as 20% of all workplace fatalities.

To raise awareness of farm safety and educate farm workers about how to protect themselves and others on farm, and prevent avoidable deaths on the UK’s 220,000 farms, NFU Mutual established the Farm Safety Foundation in 2014.

Providing farm safety training to over 11,000 young farmers across 44 land-based colleges and universities in the UK, the Farm Safety Week also runs various awareness-raising campaigns such as Mind Your Head, focusing on farmer’s mental health and wellbeing, and Farm Safety Week.

To mark this year’s Farm Safety Week, Agri-EPI Centre spotlighted a wide range of our network members whose innovations in agri-tech improve the safety of farm work and staff. In case you missed Farm Safety Week on social media, you can catch up on the incredible work of the agri-tech companies highlighted here.

Muddy Machines and Earth Rover

Working on farms and with machinery poses a risk of injury to even the most experienced farm workers; when temporary staff are employed on-farm, often with minimal training and little knowledge of the dangers of farm work, there is a far higher risk of serious incidents.

Robotics developers Muddy Machines and Earth Rover field robots are designed to plug the labour gap facing many farmers by automating tasks for fruit picking to crop monitoring, whilst also preventing the need for inexperienced farm workers to be employed on-farm.

While Muddy Machines’ work focus on conducting fieldwork for labour-intensive crops and Earth Rover’s Pointer, Retriever and Terrier bots help farmers reduce their reliance on chemical sprays, the farm safety element of AI and robotics in agriculture is an additional benefit.

Machine Eye

Machine Eye makes workplaces and agricultural and industrial plant safer by giving the machines “sight”. The machines are able to use deep-learning AI and computer vision to continually assess risk in real time and identify any humans who might be at risk by predicting their movement and motion and reacting accordingly.

When an unsafe interaction is detected, Machine Eye is able to raise an alarm or take action to reduce the risk safely and efficiently.

Next Gen Agri Lone Worker Management

Working alone naturally carries risk as there is no one to help raise the alarm in the event of an accident, but can be particularly dangerous in the agricultural sector due to inclement weather,  heavy machinery and remote, rural locations. It’s essential lone workers have procedures in place to ensure their safety; that’s why NextGenAgri established their Lone Worker Solution.

NextGenAgri Agricultural Lone Worker solutions ensure every worker and contractor ensuring can be tracked -and kept safe – whilst working alone, giving employees, operators and management peace of mind.

The solution works around four steps: Alert, Escalate, Report and Manage. Across agriculture, construction, engineering and other sectors, NextGenAgri’s work formalises communication, monitoring and connection to 24/7 support centres to keep lone workers safe.

Crover

Storage such as grain silos and pits pose a significant risk of drowning or crushing to workers undertaking maintenance, cleaning or even simple monitoring tasks. From assessing toxic gas levels to assembling the team and equipment required to safely check on grain storage can be time consuming and costly.

The Crover bot is able to “swim” through grain and check every corner of grain bulk using moisture and temperature sensors, meaning only the robot needs to directly access the grain and keeping workers safe. The Crover bot can also provide more accurate grain data for farmers, enabling them to make better-informed decision and prevent grain spoiling.

Farm Safety

To find out more about the Farm Safety Foundation and Farm Safety Week, visit the NFU Mutual website. You can see more of the Agri-EPI Centre members on our network page, or explore our work with innovative agri-tech companies on our project pages.

 

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.

 

 

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.

As agriculture continues to embrace technology the risk of cyber attacks is increasing

We spoke to Agri-EPI member Chris Milnes from Partner& to find out about risks to agri-tech businesses around cyber security.

The last year has transformed the business environment in which we all work. As we have all had to get used to a new way of working, those with more nefarious aims and ambitions have also had to pivot, and we have seen a huge spike in cyber-attacks.

Over the past 12 months

  • 88 percent of businesses have reported a breach of their IT systems.
  • One small business has been hacked every 19 seconds in the UK
  • 37 percent of businesses in the UK have reported a data breach to the ICO

The cost associated with these breaches can be huge, both directly and indirectly

  • A third of all businesses said that they have lost clients due to cyber breach
  • 41% of customers said they would never return to a business that had suffered a cyber attack.
  • The average cost of a ransomware attack is nearly £600,000, and 48% of businesses have reported being subject to an attack of this variety.
  • Investors are increasingly looking at firms cyber security/defences as part of their due diligence

Agri-tech

Agricultural firms are quickly turning to ‘smart farming’ and ‘precision farming’ and therefore becoming reliant on technology to run their machines and equipment.  The ‘Locking’ of these systems due to a cyber-attack could lead to a loss of production, spoiled stock (severity determined by food type), compromised integrity of quality control systems, unfulfilled customer contracts with traders and processors, project delays…and most importantly, very expensive system damage costs to rebuild the systems and get back up and running again.

For many of the firms in the Agri Epi ecosystem they are fully reliant on their intellectual property, and whilst they are at the start of their journey, a breach could be catastrophic for the business. We are seeing ransom demands well into the millions when technology has been compromised.   Equally, because agriculture is so heavily dependent on seasonality and have a very small harvesting window, a cyber-attack during these periods as the ability to wipe an entire year’s revenues.

Some of the food network technologies being used that are susceptible to an attack include:

  • Online portals for rural payments and livestock tracking
  • SCADA production systems
  • HVAC systems in livestock farms, production lines
  • Agricultural machinery
  • Smart sensors for soil moisture, weather stations
  • Logistics management software

Given agricultural firms are a crucial component of the supply chain, firms will be working with multiple vendors and suppliers leading to frequent and high cost inbound/outbound fund transfer payments.  Malicious actors will often look to intercept these and conduct a classic social engineering scam diverting funds elsewhere.

Threats

The threat from Cyber Criminals is ever evolving and increasing, and is underestimated by firms across all sectors. Only 1 in 3 firms currently buy any level of cyber insurance, and we estimate that only 1 in 11 firms buy the right level of cover.

Due to the increase in claims there is an increasing realisation from larger corporates that they have to invest in cyber security defences, and as such we are seeing a substantial increase in budgets to combat the risks –we are seeing cyber criminals pivot again to attack smaller firms, where the size of the prize may be lower but they are easier prey

The team at Partners & are keen to help their clients understand the ever-increasing threat around cyber attacks and as such we’ve invested substantially in our offering around cyber risk. One of the key tools that we have access to can run a non-invasive report on your website, which enables you to see what gaps cyber criminals may look to exploit – many of which are easy to fix

We’re keen to support the Agri Epi community and if you’d like for us to run one of these reports, free of charge, or discuss anything else around cyber risk and insurance, please drop us an email or call

 

Partners& aims to be the best insurance advisory business in the UK, providing expert advice that makes a real difference across business insurance, management and employee benefits.

Partners& services cover the energy and renewables, food and drink, manufacturing, retail and wholesale, science and technology and waste management sectors, among others.

Contact:
chris.milnes@partnersand.com 07917028965

Drones In Agriculture: Automation is the Future

Drones offer a huge range of applications in the agricultural sector and are a hugely exciting part of up-and-coming agri-tech solutions. The key to maximising drone technology’s huge potential in agriculture, according to Agri-EPI Centre’s Chief Technical Officer, is the introduction of commercial services for automated drones (drones able to pilot themselves over farmland).

Dr Shamal Mohammed described his vision for the future of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), when he spoke at a recent meeting of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Science and Technology in Agriculture.

Future of Drones

After infrastructure, agriculture is the world’s second biggest market for the commercial application of drone technology, according to PwC, with an estimated potential value of $32.4 billion. The APPG invited experts from across the sector to discuss the opportunities and challenges inherent in realising the economic and environmental value of drones in UK farming.

Speaking alongside fellow drone experts from UK agri-tech company Hummingbird Technologies and Harper Adams University, Dr Mohammed described how drones are currently being used on farms. They most commonly undertake ‘eye-in-the-sky’ diagnostic activities like soil analysis, crop monitoring and disease detection, and apply inputs such as fertiliser and pesticides.

Challenges

Shamal described a range of challenges associated with the commercial use of drones. These include the need for qualified pilots, as current commercial models involve farmers purchasing and operating drones themselves or bringing in a company to do the work for them.

Further challenges include regulations requiring flying within the ‘visual line of sight’; their small payload; weather dependency; rural connectivity problems and the current gap in regulation around reducing ‘drift’ of chemical applications.

The future

Dr Mohammed believes that automated or semi-automated drones would alleviate some of these issues. Farmers would use commercial drone-programming services which, once connected to weather stations, would enable the drones to know when conditions were right, take off and fly automatically. The UAVs would then upload data gathered to an easy-to-view farmer interface, providing quality insights and enabling better decision making for farmers.

“This new and as-yet unrealised model would make it easier for farmers to access the benefits of drones,” said Dr Mohammed. “They won’t replace existing systems entirely – for example, farmers will still need tractors and sprayers – but drones might be integrated into their sprayer programmes to carry-out specific small-scale tasks.

“The development of commercial services involving automated, modular-based drones with better connectivity and supported by localised regulation is the key means of achieving the biggest benefits for agriculture.”

Working together on the future of agri-tech

Agri-EPI’s Agri-tech Innovation Support partner Leyton has seen R&D activity in the crop production sector. Dr Matilda Hayward, R&D Technical Consultant, Leyton, says: “The use of drones within the agriculture sector can significantly enhance precision and accuracy for more targeted farming strategies. Developing and integrating drone software platforms for a range of benefits is a popular innovation which may fall under the R&D Tax scheme. Agriculture business who are working on technically challenging projects involving the use of drones should explore R&D tax relief as a method of funding their projects.”

Agri-EPI Centre’s member network includes several innovative UAV and drone companies that are establishing their technology in the arable sector, including:

Featured Drone Members

Drone Ag

DroneAg uses drones, automation and simple AI technology to make farming more productive and efficient. Bringing together the expertise of farmers, agronomists, drone pilots and software engineers under one banner, Drone Ag draws on the team’s own experience of running a 6,000-acre farm to provide innovative and practical solutions for farmers today, from field mapping and crop spraying to software and drone training courses.

Hummingbird Technologies

Hummingbird Technologies is an artificial intelligence business, using imagery and data analytics from satellite, drone, plane and robot technology, along with proprietary algorithms, to provide farmers with high-resolution maps of their crops at critical decision-making junctions in the season.

Omega Crop

Omega Crop’s patented crop modelling technology, which analyses drone-gathered images of a wheat crop to identify the presence of preventable disease and weeds, often before a farmer or agronomist could detect the problem by eye. This gives the farmer time to make an informed choice about if and how they can intervene to protect their yield.

Animal Dynamics

Stork, is Animal Dynamic’s heavy-lift, aerial payload delivery vehicle has the potential to significantly improve the safety, speed, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of aerial fertiliser, pesticide, or bio-stimulant application. Being fully autonomous and packaged with a user-friendly interface, it will be a quick and easy process to highlight a field area, and let the vehicle do the rest of the work. Stork will take-off, apply the payload across the desired location, and return to land all without any need for human control.

We are confident Stork has the potential to improve yields, reduce waste and pollution, save time, and also reduce costs, making these benefits affordable to a broad range of customers. This technology will help meet the growing demand for high quality food without needing to increase costs or damage the environment in the process.

Agri-Tech Innovation Support

Did you know that Innovative businesses are able to claim back up to 33% of the costs which relate to their research and development activities, such as the advancement of new or existing products or processes?

Innovative use of technology such as drones, sensors, scanners and software can qualify for R&D tax credits. Get in touch with Leyton today: