Agri-EPI Centre is the only UK partner – the other partners being the University of Wageningen (Netherlands) and the main beneficiary BioSense Institute (BIOS) in Serbia- within the EU-funded “Data-driven Agriculture Services and Skill Acquisition (DRAGON)” twinning project. The over-arching aim of DRAGON is knowledge exchange/training from established European Centres of Excellence to BIOS to support the establishment of a co-creation eco-system comprising research organisations and end users to implement best practices in respect of understanding, developing and accelerating the adoption of big data and effective data analytics-enabled precision farming solutions within the valuable agricultural sector across the Balkan region.
More specifically, the project harnesses technologies such as AI, machine learning and computer vision to collect key data through monitoring in order to optimise agricultural production processes in turn improving production yields.
Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the project centres on successfully training and mentoring young researchers to develop careers in data-driven Precision Agriculture (PA), while simultaneously informing on the most valuable opportunities for the development of new solutions within BioSense and partner institutions addressing global markets.
Precision Agriculture (PA) is an evolving farming management strategy based on data to optimise agricultural production processes implemented through digital technologies and techniques. PA methods, harnessing data streams from satellites, mobile phones, Internet-of-Things (IoT) and technologies such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence, have the potential to increase quantity and quality of agricultural outputs while reducing input (water, energy, fertilisers, pesticides, etc.) and waste. One of the main challenges currently facing the agricultural sector is the low rate of adoption of precision agricultural (PA) technologies and solutions by farmers. A major barrier inhibiting the ready uptake of innovation is the reticence of the community to disrupt traditional practices unless a clear and compelling return-on-investment is validated for data-driven PA solutions.
Data-derived solutions must be amenable to global deployment irrespective of the operational environment, geography, individual farming practices, and be able to service the spectrum of livestock and crops. Thus the generation and access to a wide range of data is a necessity in order to extract accurate and actionable information that informs on the optimisation of on-farm processes, maintenance of the health of animals/crops whilst minimising the impact on the environment. The judicious management of the volume and scope of data is paramount in order to yield engineered solutions amenable to low-cost deployment and maintenance and is just as importantly central to crafting efficient precision services for end users.
Furthermore, the establishment of a data-driven PA eco-system requires the active contribution from all stakeholders providing and sharing resources through accessible information systems. The lack of data sharing standards and the absence of a compelling commercial value proposition on the benefits of sharing data from different on-farm systems also presents a significant challenge for adoption.
As is the case for many other key sectors, there is also a need to enhance scientific and technological (S&T) skills for executing sophisticated data analytics on multiscale/multisource agricultural data, addressing all classes of data sources. Finally efficient communication is fundamental requirement in fueling the adoption rate of the data-driven PA innovations.
The aim of the DRAGON project is to utilise the established expertise from two world leading institutions in the domain, the Agri-EPI Centre in the UK and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, to inculcate sectoral knowledge and best practices to a cohort of talented researchers within the BIOS Institute in Serbia enhancing their S&T capability to execute multi-scale/multi-source data analyses in tandem with their communication skills in disseminating the features and impact of PA innovations to various stakeholders across the supply chain and the local non-scientific communities. Specifically, the ability to deliver interdisciplinary innovation-driven R&D within a co-creation environment will improve BIOS’ scope to create globally competitive and commercially valuable PA solutions.
The DRAGON methodology is founded on providing resources that can be accessed through an eco-system of widespread agricultural knowledge and information systems. Coupled closely to the technology-focus is the nurturing of the ability of talented researchers to disseminate the findings of the developments so as to reduce the barriers to the ready adoption of innovative PA data-driven solutions.
Agri-EPI Centre delivers acceleration through the transfer of best practice in developing and commercialising precision agriculture innovation while facilitating communication, engagement and technology adoption across the supply chain bringing benefits to the farming community
One of the key strands of the overall strategy to achieve the DRAGON goals, mined the experience of Agri-EPI in respect of the establishment and impact of the network of satellite farms. The lessons learned and the approaches to engagement with the farming community formed the basis for BIOS to establish a similar satellite farm network in Serbia. The framework has proven to be highly successful and robust participation from local farmers has resulted which has identified opportunities to input to the improvement PA-enabled practices by deploying technology solutions created in Serbia to be used by the Serbian agricultural community. The satellite farms model provided a tool to empower farmers to build a strong community to facilitate and cultivate their own industry knowledge exchange and boost yield efficiency and profitability.
One of the other elements of the key impact successes of the DRAGON project lay in connecting farmers. In Serbia, farmers have extensive knowledge and unrivalled experience of farming methods suitable for the local environment. The trusted relationship between science and practice enabled by DRAGON facilitated knowledge exchange and adoption of PA to strengthen the security of Serbian farmers to grow and adapt to dynamic changes in the economic environment.
The project also recognised that the suite of communication skills transferred from Agri-EPI must provide the scope to engage with all of the stakeholders ranging from Government, large companies, SMEs, NGOs, through to individual farmers to ensure success.
- Training young researchers – Through training and nurturing the development of researchers within BioSense and their partner institutions Wageningen University and Agri-EPI increased the scientific and innovation capacity of the Knowledge Discovery Group (which will become the Knowledge and Innovation Group through the project).
Crucially, young researchers were given the opportunity to access operational farming environments to get a contextual, hands-on understanding of PA and big data in practice. This approach was designed to help researchers and data scientists understand what farming methods work and what exactly needs to be improved.
- Commercialisation – BIOS has also embarked on an extensive commercialisation programme, with over ten spin-out companies formed during the DRAGON project to date. Agri-EPI has stimulated that activity by organising Business-to-Business (B2B) workshops with participation from established UK companies currently providing solutions to the sector. The Workshops provided experienced views of the challenges/issues in seeding and growing companies bringing clear guidance on the most effective routes to the market. The early engagement with farmers was a consistent message in order to capture valuable, tried-and-tested farming knowledge and processes to inform on the features of the commercial offerings.
Bridging the gap between researchers and the farmers is at the very core of DRAGON, adding value to stakeholders by prompting the sharing and exchange of knowledge and skills between researchers and end users (farmers, NGOs, SMEs and policy makers).
The original project duration was 01/10/2018 to 30/09/2021, however the project timeframe will likely be extended owing to the disruptions as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.