Research and development | Agri-EPI Centre | Precision Innovation

Research and Development

Agri-EPI explores and delivers precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in the UK agriculture across soil, crops and livestock. Partnering with academic, publicly funded and private research and development teams and individuals, our aim is to improve and increase the use of precision engineering and technology throughout agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture in the UK. Supporting the next generation of farmers and agronomists to help feed the population and support a sustainable approach to land and animal farming and management.

Agri-Tech Hackathon aims to kick-start safety innovations for autonomous agricultural vehicles

Agri-EPI Centre, in partnership with Hands Free Farm, is running a Hackathon event challenging technological innovators to “hack” a solution to the increasing challenges and complexities of the safety of autonomous agricultural vehicles.

With new and emerging technologies driving innovations in various sectors worldwide, agriculture in particular stands to benefit from technology that can alleviate issues such as labour shortages whilst also improving the productivity and efficiency of farming.

Driving forward hands-free farming 

Autonomous vehicles offer arable farmers a wide range of benefits: foremost is to enable the better utilisation of farm staff, increase the precision of farming to improve efficacy and possibly reducing the required scale of fam machinery, all of which will combine to improve farm economics. The technologies used may also make the sector a more attractive career proposition for future generations particularly in STEM.

However, to ensure the implementation of agri-tech can keep pace with the rate of innovation, the safety, security and reliability of new technologies must be guaranteed.

The lack of formal safety regulations, codes of practice and other legislation pose a potential barrier to the widespread use of cutting-edge agri-tech, hindering the progress of the entire agri-food sector.

The Hands-Free farm is partnered with Precision Decisions, part of the Map of Ag group, to support the route mapping element of the machine operations on the farm. Clive Blacker, Head of Arable Produce at Map of Ag explains: “Safety is paramount to any solution and cannot be taken for granted.”

“The diverse nature of agriculture and robotics operating in off road and on road environments poses many challenges, not just dealing with the structure of the rules of the road but the unconventional unstructured field work and environment causes many unpredictable challenges to the saftey of robotics.  The aim of our challenge is to bring great ideas from any background to agriculture that could support robotic saftey in agriculture with the opportunity to test the ideas in a real robotic farm.”

How safety & security concerns hinder agritech adoption

 Despite the sophisticated technologies now available, an NFU Mutual survey found that as many as 80% of farmers haven’t even considered utilising unmanned vehicles and autonomous tractors.

Amongst other factors, from personal preference to initial investment, an increasingly pressing issue for the agriculture industry is farm safety. For autonomous agricultural vehicles to become universally used on-farm, there are numerous safety and security concerns to be addressed.

Safety concerns around autonomous vehicles – and the core focus of this year’s Agri-EPI Centre Hackathon – span a range of technological hazards such as collision avoidance, human supervision and detecting both humans and animals traversing operational fields.

High-tech, high-value equipment and machinery must also be secure against the threat of theft and tampering, while the GPS systems and other software is at risk of cyber attack and data breaches.

“It’s about making autonomous machines a really safe, secure system that farmers feel comfortable with, the public can feel comfortable with and the legislators and insurers can feel comfortable with,” explains Kit Franklin of Hands Free Farm.

The Agri-Tech Hackathon 2021

 The Hands Free Farm and Agri-EPI Centre’s 2021 Hackathon is a combined effort to tackle safety and security concerns around autonomous agricultural vehicles.

The Hackathon invites developers from a range of disciplines, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things, drones, computer vision and more to “hack” a safety solution for unmanned machinery.

The Hackathon aims to kick-start innovation in autonomous vehicle safety, encouraging small teams to come up with high-tech solutions that can make our farms safer and support the widespread implementation of agritech, safely.

The winning Hackathon teams will be offered a unique opportunity to implement their technology on the Hands Free Farm, connecting them with expertise and experience to further develop their solution and ultimately take it to market by drawing on the experience of the Hands Free team.

From idea to reality

This activity will be further supported by the winner’s ability to utilise the testing, research and development facilities at Agri-EPI Centre’s many Agri-Tech Hubs situated across the UK, and also a dedicated investment session with intellectual property law firm GJE, enabling new tech developers to protect their designs, branding and other assets.

 Of his own route to co-founding the Hands Free Farm, Franklin said: “I wanted to be an engineer who solved farmers’ problems. I can’t change farming by developing a new crop, because I’m not a biologist. But I can change farming by developing the machinery.”

“Getting to work with the winning concept for a further 12 months is really exciting – thinking about what we might get out of that, and also what we might be able to disseminate from that experience to the wider world, sparking new ideas and conversations.”

To find out more about the Hackathon, register your team and enter, visit: https://agri-epicentre.com/hackathon-2021/

Defra announces new R&D Partnerships Funding opportunities

Defra has announced a new series of funding opportunities to drive on-farm innovation in agriculture and horticulture, supporting the sector to improve sustainability, productivity and resilience.

Following on from the Farming Innovation Pathways competition earlier this year, the new R&D partnerships will bring together farmers and growers with technology, business and research partners to collaborate in developing innovative solutions.

Supporting innovation in agri-tech

This approach of placing farmers and growers at the centre of agri-tech development is something we enthusiastically support at Agri-EPI Centre. Since its inception, Agri-EPI has partnered with a network of farms around the UK to form our Farming Innovation Platform.

Our satellite farm network enables the development, testing, validation and demonstration of agri-tech innovations on commercial, real-world farming settings at scale.  They cover a diverse range of farming types and production systems, both livestock, arable and mixed; conventional and organic.

As a network, the group provides a unique opportunity to gain farmer insight into challenges and solutions, share experience, knowledge and perspectives into technology application and gain vital user feedback.  Highly instrumented, the network also supports all-important ground-truthing and validation of technology.

When is the right time to engage farmers in technology development?

In short: throughout the entire process.  It is never too early to engage farmers and other end-users in R&D.

  1. Understanding the problem: we are often approached by technology developers bringing skills and expertise from outside of agriculture, looking for problems to solve in the sector. Having meaningful interaction with farmers at this early stage helps technology developers to understanding the realities on farm, operationally, commercially and environmentally.
  2. User-centred design, co-development: whatever the buzz-word, involving users of technology in its design and development will ensure it meets their needs and requirements, and ultimately will increase its chances of more rapid adoption. It will also save time and cost in multiple iterations, with faster and more direct user feedback.
  3. Evaluation: there is nothing more exciting that getting a prototype out into a field of a livestock shed and seeing it in action. Getting the farmers’ feedback here as part of a commercial operation will guide how the technology (whether physical hardware or a software / data solution) needs to develop to get from a prototype or beta version towards a commercial product
  4. Knowledge exchange: in laying the foundations for technology adoption, there is no voice more powerful than a fellow farmer or grower who can share their experience with the technology first-hand. Peer-to-peer exchange of knowledge, experience, ideas and impact is far more effective that a traditional ‘show and tell’ led by the developer themselves.

In partnership with our member Innovation for Agriculture, Agri-EPI is co-hosting an interactive online workshop focused on impact-driven farmer-centred technology development, which will explore these principles further and feature case studies showcasing success.  To join the event, taking place on October 12th, please see our events pages or contact us (team@agri-epicentre.com) for further details and to register.

Defra’s R&D Partnerships will fund the following:

Competition Launching Duration and funding Outline
Research Starter October 2021 12 month projects; £28-56k total cost Supporting farmers and growers to build a collaborative team to develop their bold and ambitious early-stage ideas.  For those who have not previously received IUK funding
Feasibility projects October 2021 Up to 2 years;

£200-500k total cost

Test the feasibility of early-stage ideas to inform decision-making on subsequent R&D
Small R&D partnerships October 2021 Up to 3 years;

£1-3 million total cost

R&D for innovative solutions to substantially improve productivity, sustainability and resilience of the sector
Large R&D partnerships Early 2022 Up to 4 years;

£3-5 million total cost

R&D and demonstration of solutions to substantially improve productivity, sustainability and resilience of the sector

For more information on how we can support your ideas for innovations that will enhance the sustainability, productivity and resilience of agriculture and horticulture, contact the Agri-EPI Centre team today.

 

We recommend getting in touch with our Innovation Support Partner Leyton today for more information: https://agri-epicentre.com/membership/leyton-partnership/

 

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.”

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:

 

 

Increasing buffer feeding precision with new agri-technologies

Faced with rising feed prices, effective use of grass for both grazing and conservation is increasingly important for farmers to maintain margins. Balancing the need to ensure sufficient silage stocks for the coming winter with the desire to get the most from grazing to reduce spend on purchased feed.

As the climate remains unpredictable, as seen by the cold, wet spring of 2020 followed by hot, dry weather, grass growth rates have seen wide variances year-on-year. With so many fluctuations in price and seasonal changes, buffer feeding is likely to be required by many farmers at some stage during the grazing season to prepare for dips in grass growth.

While the majority of buffer feed is made up of maize and grass silage, there are alternatives available. In partnership with molasses blend supplier ED&F Man, Agri-EPI Centre research conducted at the Agri-EPI South West Dairy Development Centre found that including a proportion of straw and molasses-based liquid feed in the buffer feed can offer the dual benefits of allowing production to be maintained whilst preserving valuable silage stocks.

Buffer feeding research

The trial aimed to better understand and analyse the impact of replacing some grass silage in the buffer feed with a mix of wheat straw and Regumix, a high-energy and protein liquid feed made from molasses, compared to the original feed and the molasses/straw buffer feed.

Utilising the centre’s GEA Mullerup automated feeding system, a digitally-controlled system with the necessary precision for feeding trials, and working with Agri-EPI’s operational partner, Kingshay Dairy Consultants, ensured data and delivery protocols were adhered to for reliable results. 

Lower feed costs, greater production

Georgina Chapman, technical support manager at ED&F Man, reported: “Over a six-week period, there was no difference in yield between the cows fed the initial buffer and those where straw and Regumix was included. The cows were mainly later lactation and the animals on the molasses buffer showed similar lactation persistency but slightly better compositional quality.”

“Importantly, for cows in later lactation, there was no difference in body condition changes between the two groups,” she added. “However, there was a saving of 7.5kg silage per cow per day. Assuming 200 cows were fed the new buffer, the total silage saved over the six weeks would have been over 60 tons, giving more for winter feeding.”

In a commercial herd, the buffer feed would probably have been needed for 18 weeks; on closer analysis, this suggested potential savings of closer to 200 tons, which could then be used to increase silage fed per cow per day over winter.

Chapman noted that, as molasses and straw are easily stored and less likely to perish in storage, their inclusion in buffer feed can also contribute to maximising silage production and availability, ultimately maintaining production from grazing and reducing the impact of higher feed costs for farmers.

Agri-technology increases buffer feeding precision

Reviewing the trial results, Agri-EPI Centre’s head of dairy at the South West Dairy Development Centre Duncan Forbes said, “We know growth rates can change very quickly … with the best will in the world no dairy farmer can keep on top of grazing output using manual techniques. At the same time, adjusting buffer feeds on a more frequent basis would be a challenge.”

“Collecting and utilising better management information could help take a significant step in improving grazing use – and new technologies hold the key to this.”

“Integrated use of data and technology in this way can help improve the contribution from grazing, reduce feed costs, improve grazing utilisation and help meet carbon reduction targets for more sustainable systems.”

With further trials already underway using hyperspectral imaging and satellite data to monitor and predict grass growth, helping farmers optimise precision grazing and fine-tune buffer feed, agri-technology continues to support farmers. Agri-EPI’s work to improve agricultural productivity and save farmers time and money even attracted the attention of British Dairying, who covered the buffer feeding precision trials.   

Serbian researchers learn communication and knowledge exchange best practices

In conjunction with SEFARI, the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes – a consortium of six globally renowned research institutes, Agri-EPI held a virtual communication workshop aimed at enhancing the communication and knowledge exchange skills of researchers working at BioSense Institute in Serbia.

The workshop centred around two specific areas: sharing best practices in knowledge exchange and learning through case studies. 25 BioSense researchers listened to two communication experts address the importance of communication and knowledge exchange for the research community:

Keynote speaker was Dr Michelle Wilson Chalmers, Research and Communications Manager at SEFARI Gateway (SEFARI’s knowledge exchange and impact hub) and a Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh University. Michelle enlightened participants with valuable insights and practical recommendations derived from her considerable experience in the field of science communication and knowledge exchange.

Dr Michelle Wilson Chalmers said about the workshop:

“This particularly challenging year has brought the need for good science communication and knowledge exchange even more into focus, and it has been a real pleasure to help the BioSense students with practical advice on how to effectively communicate their research.”

SEFARI are partners in the wider Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Portfolio, one of the largest for agri-environment research in the UK, worth £250 million over 2016-2021, and represents a globally distinct investment in and capability for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. SEFARI Gateway works to improve the flow of research, knowledge, and expertise to and from policy, industry and the public – to provide multiple benefits and impacts.

During the workshop Michelle was joined by Jane Smernicki, Agri-EPI’s Communications and Policy Manager who, with a background in journalism and communications, has spent the past decade working in communications with organisations supporting sustainable farming and food production.

The value and recognition of science research communication is increasing, pressured by funders that are asking for maximum impact. During the workshop, tools were presented that will help facilitate and enable the conversation between researchers and different audiences. These tools were focused on media, industry partners and policy makers especially.

DRAGON project manager Ivana Gadjanski was pleased with the workshop:

“It was very valuable for us on the DRAGON project to learn first-hand how to do knowledge exchange and scientific communication in an efficient way. We look forward to putting all new learnings into practice.”

Good communication, where information is shared effectively with audiences who can benefit from it, will have a significant impact on the reach of research outcomes. Knowledge exchange is an important, if not essential, research activity, but it is a relatively newly recognised academic discipline. Its value can still sometimes be overlooked.

The items covered in the webinar hopefully empowers the Serbian researchers to communicate with policy, businesses, and media with more confidence. Thereby increasing the reach and impact of their research and accelerating the adoption of agricultural technology in the republic of Serbia.

In a couple of weeks, during a follow-up communications workshop, the same researchers have been asked to present a brief plan for an appropriate knowledge exchange activity where they can put into practice what they have learned.

Uptake of precision agriculture in Serbia

This communications workshop is part of the DRAGON project, a collaboration between BioSense Institute, Wageningen University and Agri-EPI Centre that is focused on the innovation and uptake of precision agricultural technology in Serbia, which in part is about learning from best practices in the United Kingdom and The Netherlands.

This three-year project will end in 2021, but the DRAGON project consortium is already exploring spin-off projects to help Serbia with their challenges with regards to the adoption of agricultural technology to achieve sustainable sector innovations.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 810775. For more information about DRAGON, please visit www.datadragon.eu.

Event partners

DRAGON Knowledge Exchange and Communications workshop | Precision Agriculture project Serbia, The Netherlands and United Kingdom | BioSense Institute | Agri-EPI Centre | SEFARI