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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!

New tech to transform global agriculture – 2021 Excellence Awards winners announced

New technology is set to transform global agriculture, and two agtech companies recognised for their importance in animal health and environmental protection are making rapid progress.

The first – awarded for its contribution to British agriculture – focuses on animal health. Pruex is using non-infective bacteria to improve air quality in poultry units, reducing ammonia emissions and the requirement for antibiotics..

ALVÁTECH Water – awarded for its global impact – has developed a clean, sustainable way to desalinise soil, enabling farmers to irrigate with saline water, reduce water use and even restore salinized soil to healthy, productive farmland.

Both companies were recognised at Agri-EPI’s inaugural Agri-Tech Excellence Awards in October 2021, and are now reaping the rewards of their success by extending their commercial reach around the globe.

“Last year we grew very fast, and we’re now planning a large funding round to further expand worldwide,” explains Zac Gazit, CEO at ALVÁTECH. “We started working with Agri-EPI in December 2020 as we realised they could help with several key things. They know the industry and trends in technology, and we were looking to work with farmers and governments.”

One of the biggest benefits of winning this important award – aside from the global prestige – is an introduction to the formidable judging panel, comprising Syngenta, Kubota, Leyton, Barclays and Marks & Spencer.

“M&S is buying fresh produce from farmers using our devices, and we’re having good, constructive conversations with the whole panel; there are synergies in our ethos and business and we hope to be able to work with all of them.”

ALVÁTECH is now working in 24 countries across six continents, both with government and non-governmental organisations as well as directly with 1000s of farmers.

“Our technology dissociates salt into its components which enables farmers to immediately use less water and fertilisers,” says Mr Gazit. “It is a life-changer for entire regions and millions of farmers in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.”

Farmers are using 20-60 less water, 30% less fertiliser, and are reducing soil salinity by 30% on average. As a result, yields are boosted over 20% – although the more degraded the soil the greater the scale of improvement farmers see.

“Our farmers are reducing costs while improving the soil for the next generation. This is an important green legacy for our planet.”

Pruex is in a similar position; it’s working with 1000s of farmers across the UK, Europe and South Africa, and looks forward to having discussions with M&S following the award.

Using beneficial bacteria to compete with disease-causing strains is a relatively new concept, but Pruex’s game-changing idea is an automated spraying system to apply the bacteria throughout the sheds. This not only benefits the chickens themselves, but also reduces ammonia emissions. This improves air quality for workers and birds, boosting productivity and the birds’ immune systems, and many farms are able to reduce their use of antibiotics; reducing the risk of antibiotic resistance.

“It’s proving very popular,” says Sarah Dusgate, research and development manager at Pruex. “We’ve been working with poultry farmers from the start of the business, but we have developed a new technology that will help to deploy our bacteria products more effectively and easily.”

· For more information visit https://agri-epicentre.com, www.alva-water.com or www.pruex.co.uk.

Intellectual Property – If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The title of this piece quotes an interesting philosophical question.  In the world of patents, this question is somewhat analogous to the question “to what extent does prior use of an invention make available to the public information about the invention, even if no one is around to see it?”

It is generally understood that, if patent protection is to be sought, there must be no public disclosure of the invention prior to filing a patent application.  However, what may not be so well understood is that “prior use” of an invention in a public setting, for example testing an article embodying the invention, may still qualify as a public disclosure of the invention – even if no one is actually present to observe it.

A timely reminder of the risk of public disclosure through prior use in a public setting was provided by a recent UK High Court case around field trials.

In this case, a prototype of a seed drill (i.e. an apparatus, typically pulled by a tractor, that sows seeds for crops by positioning them in the soil and burying them to a specific depth) had been tested for a ten hour period, split over two days, on a farm field.  A public footpath skirts the edge of the field where the testing took place, which, at the time of the test, was unmarked and unmaintained.  A hedge about six feet high was present between the public footpath and field, but with gaps at three points.

In response to the patentee asserting certain patent rights against alleged acts of infringement, the defendant counterclaimed for revocation of those patent rights.  The defendant argued that the prototype could have been observed from nearby roads and from the public footpath to which the public had access, sufficiently to obtain an enabling understanding of the invention, and hence this “prior use”.

The claimant (i.e. the patentee) informed the court that he was familiar with the risk of prior disclosure and that, while the prototype was being tested, he had therefore sat in a tractor cab to enable him to see anyone in the vicinity before they could see what was happening in the field, with the intention of moving the seed drill if necessary to avoid it being seen.  As it happened, there was never anyone present in the vicinity other than the patentee and his brother.

Unfortunately for the claimant, the judge decided nonetheless that there in fact was prior use on the basis that there were periods during which it was likely that a skilled person, standing at certain points on the footpath, would have been able to see the prototype in action and would have been able to deduce from its appearance and from the appearance of soil left in its wake, features of construction of the prototype including all of the claimed features.

In arriving at this decision, the judge concluded that even if the patentee (or his brother) had noticed such a person in the vicinity, he believed that – due to the size and nature of the invention – it would not have been possible for the necessary action to have been taken that would have prevented the skilled person from seeing or inferring each of those claimed features.  The patent rights in question were therefore ruled to be invalid.

Conclusion

If an invention is being tested or demonstrated in a public setting, it is not what was actually seen by someone that is relevant for a public disclosure to have occurred, but what could have been seen.  The risk of such public disclosure should therefore be carefully assessed by inventors and companies alike who intend to test or demonstrate (i.e. “use”) their invention in a public setting before doing so.

If you are concerned that you may have disclosed your invention, or want to ensure that you have taken the appropriate steps to protect your invention before it is disclosed, prior to filing a patent application, please get in touch with us at engineering@gje.com to seek our expert advice.  Information about the author of this article, and contact details, can be found here.

New UKIPO “IP Access” Fund. Up to £5,000 Intellectual Property Grant Available for SMEs

As part of the UK Government’s strategy to rebound the economy through the success of knowledge-led high skill businesses, the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has launched a new IP Access fund as an extension of the existing IP Audit Plus programme. This new fund, which offers grants of up to £5,000, can be used towards a variety of activities, including professional fees for IP services such as drafting patent applications (but not official patent office fees).

To be eligible, applicant companies must first take part in the IP Audit Plus programme and their IP Audit needs to be completed by the end of March 2022. The applicant company must be an SME with fewer than 250 employees that is able to demonstrate that the IP Audit will form a key part of achieving their business growth plans. The IP Access fund is also available to any applicant companies who have completed an IP Audit since April 2020.

The UKIPO has indicated that eligible SMEs will be notified of the new IP Access fund and, as with the IP Audit Plus programme, applications to the fund must be submitted to the UKIPO through one of their partner organisations (Innovate UK Edge in England, Scottish Enterprise and the Highlands and Island Enterprises, or the Welsh Government). Companies can contact the partner organisation directly to request participation, with successful applicants receiving a tailored programme of support that can include the UKIPO’s IP Audit Plus programme and IP Access fund.

Our friends at GJE, we have a lot of experience in conducting UKIPO-funded IP Audits, where they explore your business objectives, together with your existing and potential IP assets, and ultimately help you to develop a robust IP strategy that will support your commercial goals. The process involves a meeting with them, the outcome of which is a detailed report typically setting out the company’s IP position, with various recommendations tailored to the individual company – though the IP Audit may also be used to explore specific aspects of a company’s IP.

The total value of the IP Audit is £3,000 (inc. VAT), of which only £500 (inc. VAT) is paid by the applicant. The rest is paid by the UKIPO. The new IP Access fund offers grants of up to £5,000 that can then be used to assist the applicant company to take forward recommendations made in the IP Audit.

The IP Audit Plus programme and IP Access fund represent a fantastic opportunity for innovative SMEs to get a strategic and financial leg up that will ultimately place them in a better position to raise follow-on funding to establish and grow their company. Please get in contact via our dedicated email IPAccess@gje.com if you want to find out more.

Understanding Priorities for India’s Agriculture Sector – Online Workshops

Online discovery workshop invitations, hosted by UK agri-tech experts for key stakeholders from across India’s agriculture sector.

On behalf of the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office, Agri-EPI are hosting an initiative to identify agri-tech solutions that can support India’s agriculture sector in enabling connectivity and enhancing environmental sustainability & climate resilience.

Agri-EPI Centre will be delivering a virtual workshop on behalf of Satellite Applications Catapult to understand the priorities for Indian agriculture and the role of agri-tech to address challenges and opportunities.

The aim is to stimulate future bilateral collaboration and investment between the UK and India.

This will be achieved through 2 workshops and a bilateral event to convene interested parties around the opportunity areas and develop a prospective future programme of activity for UK-India collaboration.

The Workshops are for Indian private, public, and research organisations to highlight and articulate specific opportunities they see that will have an impact and benefit for the UK and India.

Through the support of the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the “UK Science and Innovation Network” (SIN) teams in India we invite attendees from policy, satellite technology, food supply chain, trade organisations, farming co-operations, specialist academics, start-ups and funders to attend the workshop.

The themes for the two Workshops are:

a. Enabling connectivity of actuator and sensor devices in large extensions of agricultural areas.

b. Enabling sustainable and profitable supply chains through systems, robotics, and sensors from food production through to post harvest and logistics (cold storage, storage, and consumption).

REGISTER HERE

a. Water scarcity, flooding, and drought

b. Disease management (pests)

c. Production Suitability: Integration and connectivity between precision and digital agriculture for decision making, management, monitoring of agricultural production, and identification of crop suitability.

REGISTER HERE

 

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.