Robotics, AI and Automation Archives - Agri-EPI Centre

Robotics, AI and Automation

With an increasing role in the modern management of land and livestock, at Agri-EPI we are at the fore-front of robotics, AI and automation in farming. Our role to explore and deliver precision farming engineering, technology and innovation in the UK agriculture, horticulture and aquaculture. Collaborating with a broad range of teams and individuals from science, farming and the retail and processing sector for the improvement of our land and farming methods.

Agri-EPI network explores data needs for farmers online

Agri-EPI Centre hosted a member community online special interest group titled What has data ever done for you, that brought farmers and tech developers from across the agri-tech sector together online to discuss data needs, successes and challengers for farmers.

The event was chaired by Eliot Dixon, Head of Agri-Tech (Engineering) at Agri-EPI Centre, and discussions were led by David Smurthwaite, Head of Dairy at Mackie’s of Scotland, and Jose Chitty, COO of Smartbell.

Jose Chitty began the conversation with an overview of his Smartbell project, an animal health monitoring and management system that provides unique data insights, focused on detecting health issues in calves. Smartbell makes it easy to gather data and present insights directly on a phone, and allows for farmers to spot problems faster and more easily, and create benchmarks for tracking changes and improvements on farm. This kind of data gathering can help to improve profitability, improve animal health, justify spending, and help to access funding.

David Smurthwaite, one of Agri-EPI’s innovation farmers, then took over the discussion to comment on the farmer perspective for using data and tech on farm. He uses Smartbell on his farm, and though he was cynical and had a hard time believing in the data at first, the app has improved and the system is working well for his team. For David, data needs to be user friendly, as implementing changes and getting an older team on board to use tech can be a challenge. He would like for the information to be more accessible but has very much started to rely on tech to aid him and his team in improving the welfare of their animals.

Discussion followed, where a number of questions were posed to the audience, and an array of thought-provoking answers were shared:

 

Q: What is the ultimate destination for this technology in the future?

A: Data transfer across the industry for benefit and joined up decision making, data that drives actions to help business, and a hand holder for farmers improving sustainability and profitability.

 

Q: What data sources are already vital for farmers?

A: Data associated with productivity, data that mitigates known risks, data that enables yield to be optimised, and data that provides efficiency on farm.

 

Q: What are specific challenges on farm that could be solved with data and information now?

A: Yield forecasting, connecting environment with individual animal performance, prediction rather than just alerting, investment, storing data, and statistical analysis for data.

 

Q: What is stopping farmers from getting the most information out of the data they have?

A: The data isn’t always the farmers but rather the equipment manufacturers, the data is too complex, farmers may lack certain skills or digital knowledge needed to understand the data adequately, farmers may not have enough time or have inoperable systems on their farm, and a lack on interoperability.

 

Q: What are disadvantages of using information and data?

A: Becoming over-reliant on certain companies and pieces of tech, the lack of accuracy of some data, or getting landed with the wrong application. Trust in the system needs to be ensured.

 

Q:Who should own the rights to the data from farms?

A: Farmers should own the data and be able to have a say on what is done with it, but secondary information could be owned by third party. Both parties should understand contractual laws and come to their own agreements, since data sharing is extremely important for the agriculture sector.

 

Agri-EPI will host their next member community special interest group in person at Cranfield University on 17th January, entitled Accelerating robotic systems for agriculture. Find out more here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/special-interest-group-accelerating-robotic-systems-for-agriculture-tickets-464983296557

International collaboration in agri-tech

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Manager, Duncan Ross, spoke at The Argentinian Embassy in London along with Agri-EPI Centre members: Ian Beecher-Jones from JoJo’s Vineyard, Marc Jones, Business Director at Antobot, and Emil Endres, Operations Engineer from Outfield Technologies, as part of the dissemination activity from the two Viticulture projects funded by Innovate UK and EIT Food.  They demonstrated the use of drone and robotic technology and the potential benefits to the viticulture sector to a delegation of visitors from the wine growing Mendoza region of Argentina, and the wider British Argentinian Chamber of Commerce. Agri-EPI’s Communications Officer, Tatiana Boyle, supported with the Spanish translation for the tech in viticulture video shown to the delegation.

This visit follows a trip to Argentina by Duncan and Agri-EPI’s Head of Crops, Claire Hodge, where they attended workshops related to the current state of UK Agri-Tech, and a conference on biofilms near Cordoba. They then travelled to Rosario to meet with numerous Agri-Tech businesses in the area to gain an understanding of Argentinian Agri-Tech, before finally visiting “Glimax” a company that researches and validates Agri-Tech from all parts of the globe to make tech adoption recommendations to their farmer clients in the agronomy side of their business.

Duncan said:

“This was a fantastic opportunity facilitated by the Department of International Trade, to build on the links we are developing with Argentinian contacts both in the UK and in country. I envisage future opportunities for Argentinian Agri-Tech companies to use Agri-EPI Centre hubs as landing pads, and for UK Agri-Tech companies to explore opportunities abroad.”

 

         

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

New data and robotics project essential for viticulture

New data and robotics projects could bring much needed time, cost and labour savings to UK vineyard producers.

Precision agriculture specialists, Agri-EPI Centre, AI-driven autonomous robotics company Antobot and vineyard owner, Ian Beecher-Jones, have embarked on two projects at JoJo’s vineyard near Henley-on-Thames to create a vineyard digital map, and on-the-ground and aerial monitoring.

The shareable digital infrastructure project – funded by Innovate UK and Defra as part of their Farm Innovation Programme Research Starter Round 2- will create the digital infrastructure of the vineyard, including rows, posts and vines to an accuracy of two centimetres using real time kinetic (RTK) surveying tools. The shareable infrastructure model, based on the Australian Collabriculture project could save producers many hours of work and cost in setting their vineyards up ready to embrace viticultural technology.

On-the-ground and aerial monitoring will be gathered by robots and drones to add a layer of data to the digital map. The robots are being developed by agriculture robot technologists, Antobot, and drones are supplied by Agri-EPI Centre. This second strand is funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

The resulting technology will be highly transferable to other row crop sectors, such as orchards and soft fruit.

Duncan Ross, business development manager crops, Agri-EPI Centre said:

“When wine growers want to survey a vineyard with a robot or drone they have to do a survey and plan beforehand, which can be highly time-consuming if they have to do it for each technology they want to use. Creating a shareable digital twin of the vineyard should cut down the amount of time that contractors spend out in the field, saving producers and technology companies time and money. If growers have their own shareable digital infrastructure built to a standardised format, it can be shared with any technology company the grower would like to work with, reducing duplication of unnecessary onboarding and set up time every time a new technology is to be tested and tried in the vineyard or orchard.

Marc Jones, Business Director, Antobot said:

“This project is a vital step in the adoption and acceleration of sustainable robotics in viticulture. The grower-owned digital infrastructure will significantly reduce the time required for ag-tech providers to begin operations at the vineyard resulting in lower costs for the customer and faster development and deployment of robotic applications.

“The digital-infrastructure map will provide a common understanding and ‘language’ for both growers and ag-tech providers ensuring that precision can be matched to reality and reducing the friction between the data outputs and user. Antobot will use their various robot applications during the project, such as logistics (Assist) and scouting (Insight), to ensure that the digital-infrastructure captures multiple use-case requirements and is robust in a variety of tasks and conditions.”

Ian Beecher-Jones of JoJo’s Vineyard said:

“I expect the viticulture sector to act favourably to these exciting and essential projects. We need technology to find a way to replace the labour shortages the industry is facing by allowing a more accessible way for vineyards to embrace robotics and AI technology. It will hopefully allow us to find a new way of marketing vineyards to our customers through a potentially new revenue stream with consumer facing technological products and innovations. We cannot lose traditional wine-making skills, but any vineyard that can blend traditional with modern ways of production will be at the forefront of the industry.

“From my own 20 years of working in agri-tech, I know that there are growing pains for agri-tech companies; by working together, JoJo’s and Agri-EPI Centre can give a platform to companies to test their technologies and roll them out not only to the wider viticulture sector, but potentially other food growers.

“It is the shareability of the digital infrastructure that is key to establishing a reliable and trustworthy data platform we can all work from. Once established we can share it with and partner alongside a range of ag-tech companies who see the benefits and opportunities of working with one of fastest growing crops sectors in the country.”

Farm walk brings together agri-tech community at Upper Nisbet Farm

   

   

 

This month Agri-EPI hosted another successful on-farm day in Scotland at one of their innovation farms, Upper Nisbet Farm, in collaboration with farmers Robert, Jac and Andrew Neill.

Agri-EPI members and representatives from across the agri-tech sector met up for a farm tour and day of networking, discussions, and precision tech demonstrations.

Autonomous grain storage monitoring company, Crover, showed a live demo of their grain swimming robot.

Lorenzo Conti, Founder and Manging Director, explained:

“The main aim is to help farmers like Rob, but also grain storage operators and grain merchants, to store large quantities of grain to maintain the quality of their stock, to better plan their businesses, and also to improve the health and safety of their operations”.

KEENAN, a respected leader in sustainable and profitable farming solutions focused on maximising feed efficiency, demonstrated their mixer wagon in action. Datamars, who enable the harnessing of data to measurably improve productivity and quality of life for livestock farmers, demonstrated their Tru-Test range. And John Deere, leading manufacturers in agricultural machinery, discussed their GPS and data collection tractor technology.

Farmer Robert Neill rounded out the day by leading a trailer ride to view the arable fields and cows and calves.

Ross Robertson, Head of Mixed Farms at Agri-EPI Centre, said:

“This kind of in-person networking and collaboration is invaluable to us as an organization, as it allows us to engage with our members and farmers alike to get genuine feedback on the products we are involved with. As we all know it has been a difficult past couple of years for all businesses in the sector, and getting back on farm and meeting face-to-face at events like this will help everyone progress in what they are trying to do in benefitting the Agricultural sector”.

As a key, government-backed player in the agricultural sector, Agri-EPI Centre has been able to enlist a network of farms spread throughout the UK to participate in the Agri-EPI Farm Network.

They equipped these farms with a suite of precision sensor technologies to measure variances across every dimension of food production – quality, productivity, wastage, and more. From there, they are able to begin implementing the technologies and innovations that will change the future of farming, and assess the ways in which they can work together to bring these ideas to full commercial viability.

Autonomous and robotics solutions for agriculture and horticulture

By: Duncan Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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