Investment - Agri-EPI Centre - Engineering Precision Innovation

Investment

We collaborate and partner with investors in novel technology in agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture.

Supporting modern farming methods and innovation in the UK and around the world. Agri-EPI explores and delivers precision farming engineering and technology across soil, crops and livestock.

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.

On-farm conference provides unique discussions around sustainability in farming

 

Sustainability, technology, and innovation in farming were the focus of Agri-EPI Centre’s Annual Conference last month at Shimpling Park Farm in Suffolk. The event brought together over 100 guests from across the agriculture sector, from farmers and growers to tech developers, academics, and other sector representatives, for a day of discussions and networking.

The day, entitled ‘The path to sustainable farming continued: the role of precision technology’, began with introductions from host and farmer, John Pawsey, Agri-EPI’s CEO Dave Ross, and journalist and conference chair, Anna Jones.

Dave Ross said:

“It’s a relief to get back in person. There’s nothing better than actually meeting people face to face to have networking discussions, discuss the problems that are topical, and think about solutions to those problems.”

Fabia Bromovsky, Director of the Global Farm Metric at the Sustainable Food Trust took the floor as the conference’s keynote speaker to discuss the question: what exactly is sustainable farming? She explained that we lacked a common understanding and that where definitions exist, they often overlooked the interconnectedness and diversity of our farm systems.   She set out the need for a common language, a framework that recognises this holistic system and identifies where impact occurs.

She acknowledged the important role of technology to support farmers with this.  Farmers already collect lots of data, but with a consistent set of measures, in-common to all farm assessments, technology can provide solutions that make it easier to collect. Technology can enable farmers to protect their data, share data between consenting users, improve performance, and reduce time and costs.

She maintained the power of a common framework is it would provide a consistent baseline of data, the DNA of the farm, that can underpin supply chain transparency, green investment, and food labelling.  Governments, markets, and the financial sector can then reward producers who are delivering genuine benefit to the environment and public health and shift the balance of financial advantage towards more sustainable systems.

The farmer speakers were up next, with a panel made up of four of Agri-EPI’s innovation farmers, including Sophie Alexander from Hemsworth Farm, Jo Franklin from Kaiapoi Farm, John Pawsey from Shimpling Park Farm, and Ian Beecher-Jones from JoJo’s Vineyard.

They discussed the challenges within the agriculture sector including resilience to weather events, net zero goals, and price volatility, and how uncertainty in policy can affect the ability for some farmers to innovate as much as they would like to. Other topics discussed included how sustainability is inextricably linked to profitability, the need for a business mindset as a farmer, and the methods the farmers use to progress towards their sustainability goals.

The tech panel included developers Howard Wu from Antobot, Jack Wrangham from DroneAg, Jim Wilson from SoilEssentials, and James Brown from Earth Rover. Their discussions centred around how to make technology accessible to farmers, how to better understand farmers’ priorities for innovation, and how to attract more youth to agriculture with the use of technology.

Lastly, bridging the gap between the farmers and the tech developers, the final speaker panel included Calum Murray, Head of Agriculture & Food at Innovate UK and Agri-EPI speakers including CEO, Dave Ross, CTO, Trisha Toop, and Head of Engineering, Eliot Dixon.

Calum Murray explained:

“What we do at Innovate UK is try to make things happen that wouldn’t normally go ahead. First and foremost, we have to understand what the challenges are. We need to identify those areas that will deliver the greatest impact and give us value for money and give value to the UK economy”.

Dave Ross said:

“We are in an industry that has huge challenges and huge opportunities.”

The speaker sessions were followed by a networking lunch and farm tour around Shimpling Park Farm headed by John Pawsey.

John explained:

“We’ve been using the Skippy Scout Drone. There’s a huge amount to be looking at and I have to say, huge thanks to Agri-EPI and to Skippy Scout, because even though we can actually physically go out and look at all those things ourselves, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort to go out and get that data, if you have a drone that can go out and get it for you, then why wouldn’t you do that?”

Guests were thrilled to be back in person discussing sustainability within the food supply chain, agri-tech solutions, and innovation in farming.

Ian Beecher-Jones said:

“I think today was very much about the grower, very much about the farmer.”

Calum Murray said:

“It’s been terrific to get back on farm and hear first-hand exactly what farm businesses are having to face.”

Agri-EPI Centre is the UK’s leading centre for precision innovation in farming. They help to deliver profitable and productive solutions to empower more sustainable farms and specialise in connecting knowledgeable experts and new solutions across the agricultural sectors.

Get in touch about opportunities at team@agri-epicentre.com

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

Mirico’s ORION®

The agricultural sector is a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, with the IPCC estimating that agriculture and land use are responsible for 21% of all greenhouse emissions, and with 52% of nitrous oxide emissions coming from the sector. To help understand exactly where and how these greenhouse gases are emitted during agricultural processes, reliable measurement methods are needed. As a powerful greenhouse gas with 84 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide, methane (CH₄) needs to be accurately monitored, and its emission response to increased temperature needs to be quantified.

Mirico’s Orion® CH₄ technology has been developed to monitor methane emissions on a continuous basis across a large area, in all weathers. At the heart of all Mirico products is a revolutionary new technology- Laser Dispersion Spectroscopy (LDS). Whereas traditional optical sensing systems measure the intensity of returned light, LDS is measuring the change in frequency of the returned light. The technology provides real-time monitoring of emissions, operating specifically in the mid infra-red spectral region and enables the collection and interpretation of emissions data in all weather conditions. From this data users are able to gain insights based on accurate continuous reporting, even in fog, rain, snow and particulate affected environments. The Mirico Orion® is able to carry out fugitive emissions monitoring, biomethane emissions monitoring, greenhouse gas analysis, and agricultural gas monitoring.

Key benefits:
Compared with conventional methods of monitoring methane and ammonia concentrations, Mirico’s Laser Dispersion
Spectroscopy technology offers:
• Accurate, precise and reliable measurements
• Consistent performance in adverse weather conditions (rain, fog, snow, dust)
• Large area coverage with simple, robust equipment
• Autonomous and continuous monitoring
• Real time, reproducible data for more meaningful analysis

Agri-EPI has invested in Mirico’s Orion® methane measurement system and will be using it in funded project work at its state-of-the-art South West Dairy Development Centre (SWDDC) in Somerset, which aims to offer a fresh vision for sustainable UK milk production. Our unique version of this sensor, including bespoke additions to the Mirico software suite, will be available for research use at SWDDC and can be used for trials such as outdoor and indoor methane monitoring, feed trials, herbal leys trials and ground truthing of novel sensors and monitoring methods. For information on renting out our technical assets please contact team@agri-epicentre.com.

Aquaculture Innovation Centre opens on Scotland’s Argyll coast

An array of aquaculture specialists, academics and industry representatives gathered at Loch Fyne on Scotland’s Argyll coast yesterday, 15th June, to witness the formal opening of Agri-EPI Centre’s new Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre (MAIC).

 

Guests of the launch event were welcomed by Managing Director of Otter Ferry Seafish, Alastair Barge, and CEO of Agri-EPI Centre, Dave Ross, who introduced the new centre.

 

“The facility is scaled and configured to bridge gaps identified by industry, including testing of instrumentation and validation of operational welfare indicators, and other trials, under controlled conditions with near market-sized farmed fish. The proposed investment is industry led – responding to industry demand and taking design and direction from that demand.”

 

Guests enjoyed a tour of the facilities, a networking lunch, and the witnessing of the formal opening of the centre.

 

In conjunction with independent aquaculture company, Otter Ferry Seafish (OFS) – and jointly funded by Innovate UK and Agri-EPI Centre – the Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre offers fully serviced research and development facilities to aquaculture producers and technology providers and is aimed at helping to drive sustainable solutions and improve efficiency for the UK aquaculture industry.

 

Alastair Barge, Managing Director of Otter Ferry Seafish, explained:

“Research has been at the heart of the company since day one, but our recent collaboration with Agri-EPI has added new impact and a new species in salmon. We have a great mix of industry and research, and together we can forge the way as innovators in sustainable aquaculture.”

 

Agri-EPI Centre has over 220 industry focused stakeholder members spanning retailers, supply chain associations, and high-tech companies, large and small, and this collaboration helps drive innovation and solutions within the sector.

 

“Enabling assets such as the new Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre provide industry and academia with bespoke industry-focused facilities to perform development testing, validation and solution-finding.”

 

If you would like more information about Agri-EPI Centre, please visit: https://twc.agri-epicentre.com/

Get inventive and take control of tax

The agricultural sector is taking undeniable initiative when it comes to innovation. But many farming and agri-businesses are missing out on a big opportunity to claim tax relief.

R&D is not all white lab coats and PhDs; farmers often carry out activities that are claimable under the R&D Tax Credit Scheme – a retrospective exercise which offers up to 33% of R&D costs as a tax credit.

Financial consultancy Leyton is working with agri-tech enablers, Agri-EPI, to make more UK farmers aware of the scheme and its potential to provide important cashflow, while aiding the improvement of operational efficiencies.

“The scheme can be applicable to work that is happening on farms day to day – but there is huge value underclaimed within agriculture because farmers don’t classify what they are doing as R&D and don’t fully understand their eligibility,” says George Stuffins, Business Development Manager at Leyton.

Broadly speaking, R&D occurs when farmers make improvements based on three key questions: How do they increase the quality of produce? How do they increase yield? And how do they become more sustainable?

Examples range from poultry farmers experimenting with feeding times and lighting concentrations to improve feed conversion or growth rates, to arable farms engineering weed control equipment to reduce reliance on chemicals and improve soil biology. Rewardable R&D is within the realms of every farm business and can be very lucrative, he says.

“Failed projects can qualify too, not everything goes right first time, and in HMRC’s eyes such work can still add significant value to knowledge in the sector.”

So how do farm businesses qualify for R&D tax credits?

Matilda Hayward, senior R&D technical consultant at Leyton, says that conversations with prospective applicants begin on farm with the aforementioned three key questions.

“It drives the project and outlines the business’ main goals, then looks at what R&D is already occurring on the farm and what other R&D strategies could be explored to capitalise on the R&D tax credit scheme.”

Criteria include:

  1. It must seek a scientific or technological advancement,
  2. It must be meeting a scientific or technological challenge to get the results or determine unfeasibility,
  3. It must show a systematic approach and be your own activity.

Eligibility is not exclusive to large scale businesses – it is entirely based on a business’ project meeting the key criteria – nor is there a maximum number of project claims.

So what can farm businesses claim?

As a retrospective scheme, applicants claim back money spent on innovative projects over the past two years at the end of a financial year.

The bulk of an R&D claim covers PAYE salaries but there is a rate for contracted staff like seasonal workers and consultants. A portion of utility costs are also claimable – albeit quite nominal, as are software licences.

However, high value claims come from projects using a lot of consumables like feed, medicines and artificial insemination products and services.

“The claim could also include a proportion of costs in relation to mortality within the R&D trial,” says Dr Hayward.

Businesses can’t claim capital costs under the scheme – but there are still opportunities under the Capital Allowance Scheme and through grants, says Mr Stuffins.

How the tax benefit is received depends on tax position as well as the amount the business is claiming back. But a misconception is that businesses in a loss-making position can’t claim.

“Businesses in this position can actually claim for a higher percentage of qualifying expenditure as cash,” he explains.

Looking forward, if a business decides to move ahead, then they need to treat it like an R&D project, says Dr Hayward.

She recommends keeping all the project details and data in one place, including trial results and analysis, when the trials took place, who was involved and the time spent on each activity.

“HMRC now looks for better audit trails so it’s about making sure it’s documented in the right way to make the most of tax credits,” she says. “And it also benefits the business because it can better justify claimed costs.”

Farmers often have a bank of information that can be used, like health monitoring, soil analysis, and data from audits and surveys.

“A consultant can help a business collate the retrospective data for work they didn’t even consider as an R&D project, as well as the best way to collect and collate data going forwards,” she explains.

“Farmers can claim directly. But involving a consultant takes the pressure off the farmer and gives them the security that the claim is compliant and includes all possible business improvements for maximum return.”