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Agribots and the tech revolution on the farm
What does the farm of the future look like? Increasing automation and big data promise to revolutionise every industry, including the agricultural countryside with a tech sector that will be worth more than £136 billion globally by 2025. The UK Government recognized this early on and launched an Agri-Tech strategy in 2013 to lead on innovation breakthroughs in the face of a transforming global agricultural sector. The strategy established four novel Centres for Agricultural Innovation, including the Agri-EPI Centre to accelerate precision methods across all major agricultural sectors. To share best practices and promote the UK as a leader in precision agriculture innovation, the Science and Innovation Network (SIN) organised a delegation from the Agri-EPI Centre to visit the US. The delegation was comprised of Agri-EPI Centre leadership and included the CEO of Agri-EPI and several Directors from academia (Cranfield University and Harper Adams University) and from companies (AgSpace and Precision Decisions). As the US has a growing demand for precision methods because agriculture is a significant contributor to many state economies, the aim of the scoping mission was to learn and explore partnerships with the full gambit of stakeholders driving next generation sustainable farming.
In the Washington, D.C. area, the delegates learned about cutting-edge government research at USDA ARS in Beltsville, MD. They chatted with researchers working on the latest technology in hydrology and remote sensing, postharvest technology, microbial food safety, and animal genomics. In Washington DC, the group met with representatives from ARPA-E (DOE), Foundation for Food and Agriculture (FFAR), and USAID to discuss leveraging global partnerships to bring transformative technologies to farms around the globe.
At UC Davis, they met with top faculty to discuss emerging technologies in precision agriculture targeting the high value crops of California agriculture. In addition, experts working in agricultural engineering from Washington State University, University of Arizona and Texas A&M joined the discussion as well as faculty from UC Santa Barbara reflecting an added breadth of regional agriculture and demonstrations/collaborations with agricultural extension centres or growers.
SIN also hosted the delegates, experts from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) and UC Merced and the universities mentioned above at the British Consulate in San Francisco to discuss their leading edge research on precision agriculture solutions. The roundtable led to a robust discussion, reflecting the diverse groundbreaking projects of the group – from the LBL AR1K Smart Farm project in Arkansas to the Harper Adams’ Hands Free Hectare project. Immediate connections were made between Agri-EPI Centre member and world-class institutions Harper Adams and Cranfield Universities with the US research institutions present.
In Silicon Valley the delegates met with Fall Line Capital, an agricultural investment firm to discuss the hottest food and agriculture technology trends. At Planet Labs, a US satellite company already working with UK’s AgSpace to deliver agronomy tools to UK farmers, the group brainstormed on how to further leverage satellite data for academic and business endeavours. Directors from Cranfield University and AgSpace highlighted their use of satellite data to create a UK-wide precision soil map. In true Silicon Valley fashion, the meeting wrapped up with warm chocolate chip cookies!
On the last day, the delegation met with the innovation ecosystem stakeholders working closely with growers in Salinas, an agricultural region in CA, also known as the ‘salad bowl,’ where high value crops like strawberries and leafy greens are grown. Meetings with leadership at Thrive AgTech and Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, an accelerator and incubator, respectively, showed how the Agtech pipeline in Silicon Valley has an increasing global footprint innovation by bringing together corporations, universities, growers, and startups. At the centre, they spoke also with Taylor Farms, the world’s largest processor of fresh-cut vegetables, to discuss opportunities and challenges in adoption of precision agriculture technology.