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-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/

Securing UK farms: Tackling rural crime with NextGenAgri

In the wake of the NFU Mutual report on rural crime, Agri-EPI Centre network member NextGenAgri and partners at O.R.P. CCTV and R-Com IoT have teamed up to develop an innovative new solution to help combat what is an irrefutable blight on the agricultural industry.

With an estimated total cost of £43.4m in 2020 – and with rates rising considerably on certain assets and in certain regions – theft is a real cause for concern. But other crimes such as dog attacks on livestock and fly tipping also cost the agrifood sector both time and money every year.

Jim McClean, NFU Mutual Chairman says: “As a farmer myself, I know from personal experience that rural crime […] is far more than an inconvenience. It’s a major disruption that can have a real impact on a farmer’s work life, family life and mental wellbeing. The anxiety experienced by farming families […] is impossible to calculate.”

Solutions to the biggest agrifood challenges

Agri-EPI Centre works alongside farmers, developers and stakeholders to help solve challenges facing agriculture and safety on farm, including the safety of premises and technology, has been at the forefront of our most recent work – including our upcoming Hackathon.

That means working with Agri-EPI Centre network members, such as NextGenAgri to continually test, adapt and develop systems that can keep agricultural assets safe and secure. From plant, asset and vehicle tracking to CCTV systems and intruder alerts, Agri-EPI Centre has been essential to facilitating NextGenAgri’s innovations in agritech.

NextGenAgri uses agri-tech to enable farms to accelerate the adoption of technology to accelerate business growth, providing a range of solutions that couple innovation with the critical challenges of the UK agricultural community, including farm yields, asset security and worker safety.

The Active AI Enhanced CCTV camera developed by NextGenAgri is at the cutting edge of farm site security, extending the capability of existing cameras to deliver proactive alerts, 24-7.

Utilising AI, this system can detect unexpected, out-of-hours movement and can distinguish between different vehicles (from scooters to large plant), people and even suspicious behaviour. Should the system identify something out of the ordinary, the alarm is raised allowing the stakeholder to check and respond accordingly.

Evolving to meet future threats

Gill Nunn, CEO and Founder of NextGenAgri Limited says: “The solutions we have developed with our partners enable us to deliver a highly capable response to criminal behaviour and activity. They also provide a platform for our evolution to meet future threats.”

Duncan Kirby, R-Com IoT says: “The solutions we have developed with our partners provide end-to-end, integrated, and modular solutions that give land owners and farmers alike a proactive, highly accurate, efficient and effective response to criminal activity.”

Referring to Active AI Enhanced CCTV, Chris Marlow, CEO of O.R.P. Surveillance says: “Agricultural settings can be one of the most challenging environments to secure. The flexibility this system offers is a game changer in its adaptability to different environments and its ability to respond to various threats. Smart, automated, pro-active systems are the future of rural security. We are proud and excited to be a part of that.”

Working alongside farmers, tech developers and a wide range of other companies in the agricultural sector is just one of the many ways we facilitate and enable innovation on farms in the UK and internationally. You can find out more about Agri-EPI Centre’s work on our project pages.

Agri-EPI Centre and Gill Jennings & Every LLP announce new partnership focused on IP

Discover UK government incentives for agirtech companies to develop new and existing products, processes and services in agriculture. In partnership with Leyton.

Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm announce robotic safety hackathon

While the advancement of autonomous farm vehicles offers clear economic and environmental benefits, its future growth also presents the new challenge of ensuring unmanned machines pose no risk to farmers, and the public crossing their land.

During Farm Safety Week (19-23 July 2021) Agri-EPI Centre and the award-winning Hands Free Farm (HFF) project have announced they will hold a hackathon to identify new solutions for robotic farming safety.

As experts in the development of autonomous farm machinery, the HFF team will integrate and evaluate the winning solution at their Midlands plot.

The event is open to any company or individual from any background.

Registration will open on 30 July on the Agri-EPI website.

 

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Director, Lisa Williams, said: “The benefits of autonomous farm machinery are many but as it becomes more commonplace in the future, and while more and more people recognise the mental health benefits of walking outdoors, it’s essential that farm automation poses no threat to the public.

“We’re excited to have Hands Free Farm on board to help us devise the hackathon and look forward to seeing the participants come up with some really innovative ideas.”

Innovate UK-funded HFF is led by Precision Decisions, with partners Farmscan Ag, Harper Adams University and Agri-EPI Centre.  It builds on an earlier project, Hands Free Hectare, in which a hectare of cereal crop was grown without any human entering the hectare of land.

Clive Blacker Clive, Director of lead partner Precision Decisions, said:

“One of the challenges of our project is that, like many typical farms, our 35ha plot includes footpaths and roads with public access.  Safety and security of the operation of autonomous machinery is of paramount importance. Addressing this issue will be critical to implementing autonomous machinery and devices in real-world commercial farming settings in the future, and gaining regulatory, market and public acceptance of the technology. We are very excited to be working with Agri-EPI to develop a robotic safety hackathon and cannot wait to see what new thinking and imagination can be applied to agriculture from any background.”

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. 

UK agri-tech company receives investment boost to agricultural robotics

With the UK agricultural industry facing unprecedented challenges, such as the increasing global population, pressure to achieve Net Zero and a dearth of agri-food labourers, AI and robotics may provide the key to unlocking agriculture’s productivity.

Agricultural robots can undertake short-cycle repetitive tasks that currently make inefficient use of resources; by undertaking tasks that can be costly and limited, or reliant on large diesel-based machinery, agro-chemicals or human labour, cleaner, smarter robotics could enable the feeding of future societies.

The future of farming

In an exciting development for robotics’ use in British agriculture, UK-based startup Antobot, developer of affordable robotics for sustainable agriculture, has secured £1.2 million in their seed funding round following a strategic investment from a leading automotive electronics solutions provider in China, Intron Technology Holdings Ltd.

Founded by embedded controls and robotics experts, Antobot is developing innovative vertically-integrated robotics AI solutions optimised for agriculture aiming to increase efficiency and sustainability whilst maintaining accessibility and affordability with products expected in the market in 2022.

Smart, sustainable solutions

Antobot’s first product line is its fully integrated automotive-grade universal Robot Control Unit (uRCU®), the “brain” of the robot. Once requiring multiple separate modules, the uRCU®’s sophisticated design combines the core hardware and advanced software for agri-robotic applications in one compact single unit.

Antobot’s CEO, Howard Eu, explains: “The integrated design makes the uRCU® smaller, more reliable and affordable than other existing solutions, and the full-stack AI also confers performance benefits with its universal, configurable design that can adapt to different farmer needs.”

Delivering Insight

This funding will also enable Antobot to develop various full applications using its modular platform, starting with its scouting robot, Insight. Focusing initially on the £875 million UK fruit sector, Insight travels autonomously through the farm and, using artificial intelligence, gathers accurate, timely and rich data for deeper insight into crop yield, profile, and pest/disease management.

Unlike manual scouting or scouting using large heavy machinery, Insight is powered by renewable energy and does not require any labour. Working with a selection of partner farms in England, Insight will be trialled in UK fields this summer of 2021.

“The development of Insight has been directly informed by the experiences of our partner fruit-growers in the UK and understanding their concerns over achieving Net Zero and the loss of agri-labour,” said Marc Jones, Business Director at Antobot.

“Insight will provide accurate yield forecasts, real-time crop management and digitisation of the supply chain using this early growth-stage data, which can give growers greater weight in contract negotiations, decrease avoidable food waste and enable more efficient use of limited labour.”

Supporting innovation in agri-tech

From its inception, Antobot has been supported by various organisations including Agri-TechE, Agri-EPI, Innovate UK, Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative, St John’s Innovation Centre, ideaSpace of Cambridge University, and Anglia Ruskin University. This strategic investment from Intron Technology will provide valuable support in supply chain, manufacturing and quality assurance to bring Antobot’s uRCU® and Insight to market in 2022.

Eddie Chan, Co-CEO and Executive Director of Intron Technology, said of the investment: “We are strongly committed to Research and Development at Intron, particularly when promoting sustainability. And we are looking forward to working with Antobot, learning from each other, and helping Antobot grow into the leading force in the agricultural robotics sector we know it can be.”

To find out more about Antobot, visit their website and to see more of our work supporting innovation in agri-tech, and see how you can benefit from Agri-EPI Centre’s support, visit our project pages.