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Farming Innovation Pathways: LightWeeding

The LightWeeder is a world-first eye-safe, herbicide-free, carbon neutral, commercially viable weeding system delivered by lightweight autonomous field robots via UK agri-robotics company and Agri-EPI Centre member, Earth Rover.

The LightWeeding technology uses semiconductor LEDs to solve key technical, safety and commercialisation challenges faced by laser-based weeding systems.

The LightWeeder is part of CLAWS (Concentrated Light Autonomous Weeding and Scouting), Earth Rover’s agri robot that can kill weeds using a unique concentrated light method, and can also scout fields to obtain a complete data map of all crops after planting, showing the crops exact location, size, and any early signs of disease.

The main features of CLAWS are:

  • Weeding – chemical free and inherently safer than laser weeding. No till and no crop damage and can be used in any conditions without compacting the soil.
  • Scouting – In depth analysis of crops to allow better harvest predictions and increased yields

The complete system is ultra-lightweight (only 300kg) meaning it requires low amounts of energy to run, and is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than many of its competitors. It runs on batteries and (eventually) solar panels therefore uses no fossil fuels and helps farmers meet their net zero targets.

With increasing types of chemical-resistant weeds, a significant downturn in availability of hand labour plus a shift in society towards more organic options, now more than ever there is a need to change the way we farm. A recent report by Rothamsted Research shows weeds “pose an unprecedented threat to our food security” and highlights the need to diversify weed control as an urgent priority.

As explained by John Taylor, Farm Director at Pollybell Organic Farm,

“the key element here is that the LightWeeder not only makes chemical free farming more effective but it also solves the huge issue farmers are facing today in terms of the huge loss in labour force. Being able to weed fields autonomously means that food production doesn’t just grind to a halt.”

Lightweeding has several advantages over mechanical systems: it is energy-efficient and no-till, it does not damage drip irrigation or crops, it is not dependent on soil conditions, and it does not enable weeds to develop resistance. However, effective lightweeding must be low-cost, fast, and offer safe autonomous operation in modern farm environments – criteria that does not exist in-the market at this time.

Agri-EPI explores drone technology for precision spraying

Use of drone technology in precision agriculture has gained popularity in recent years, however there are still legislative barriers preventing widespread adoption, something which Agri-EPI explored in a recent webinar. Currently drones can be used for surveying, mapping, crop monitoring and disease detection. But advances in technology mean autonomous crop pesticide applications could be a reality – if the regulations keep up.

“Precision technology can tackle key agricultural challenges – using variable rate and precise application can reduce spray use and improve yields,” explained Hannah Tew, ecosystem director at Connected Places Catapult.

From a health and safety aspect, there are some benefits too.

“There are huge opportunities in accessibility to remove potential risks,” said James Thomas, sustainable and responsible business manager EAME at Syngenta. “For example, in Asia using drones removes the need for someone to be knee deep in water in a rice field or someone spraying a steep vineyard.”

However, in the UK the Sustainable Use Directive 14 forbids aerial spraying, including the use of drones, although there is a derogation available through the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). And there are questions on the efficacy of application.

“Comparing a mist blower and a drone for controlling powdery mildew in grapes, the conventional sprayer came out much better due to the lack of drift,” said Mr Thomas.

But drone technology is advancing all the time.

“We’re heading into the fourth agricultural revolution and things are changing rapidly, but chemicals will still be around for a while,” added Bryn Bircher, policy officer at HSE. “There is the issue of drift; we know there is a lot of drift with a boom sprayer but we don’t know the effect of drift from drones yet.”

And some drones do boast an impressive time saving.

“A drone with a 20-litre tank can cover 15 hectares an hour,” explained Robert Pearson at Auto Spray Solutions.

It’s important to remember that drones are not replacing conventional systems.

“People will only use the drone if it’s better for the job than the conventional way,” added Jack Wrangham at Drone Ag.

And it’s not just spraying which drones could be useful for, they could be used for mapping, applying solid fertiliser, seeds and slug pellets.

“Farmers could get field reports in minutes, just from flying a drone across the field – close up imagery can be used for crop uniformity and accessing the severity of weed patches,” said Mr Wrangham. “This could inform variable rate applications, so chemicals are only applied where necessary.”

Regulatory challenges aside, the HSE is working alongside the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish what can be done to make drone operations safe.

“It is possible to apply for a permit, which will be unique to each business,” said Mr Bircher. “We want to support new tech and I hope we can do so, with the existing legislation.”

 

Omega Crop to demonstrate “world first” weed and disease detection tech at Innovation Week

New technology for accurately identifying wheat-damaging weeds and diseases at their point of emergence in a crop has been developed in the UK, in what is believed to be a world first.

The innovative ‘early warning’ system was invented by British agri-tech company Omega Crop (formerly Dark Horse Technologies) with the support of Agri-EPI Centre and Cranfield University. Innovate UK funding was provided under a programme to boost post-Covid food resilience.

Omega Crop’s new technology to be featured during Agri-EPI’s Innovation Week

It uses 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.

Jared Bainbridge, Founder and Chief Executive of Omega Crop will lifting the lid on the new technology at a webinar on Tuesday 25 May  as part of Agri-EPI’s Innovation Week.

Jared said: “At present, other remote sensing platforms can only monitor the performance of a crop and then they correlate this performance to a “best guess” at what the problem is. They might tell you, you have a disease or weed problem, but they are unable to tell you what diseases, or what weeds.

Maximising yields, lower costs

“Omega Crop’s technology differs from our competitors through our proprietary crop model which we use to best inform you of crop performance, quality, and crop-loss events. It takes the guess-work out of the process by using multiple sources of data from satellites, drone, mobiles phones, hyper-local weather, as well as any other available sources (e.g. soil sampling, any in-field data collected from farmers or agronomists) to accurately diagnose and map the crop-loss events in a field provided as a digital report via our platform to the farmer and agronomist. Omega Crop is also able to integrate with existing farm machinery to target solutions on a plant-by-plant basis. The two key benefits are that farmers can maximise yields through early interventions and lower the cost of production through more precise application of treatments.”

Omega Crop’s system was recently trialled over a three-month period at Agri-EPI’s Crop Technology Southern Innovation Hub based at Cranfield University, supported by Cranfield’s crop science experts.

Dr Toby Waine, Senior Lecturer in applied remote sensing at Cranfield University said: “This project shows how innovative sensing and analytics can better inform business and environmental decisions. Detecting crop disease and weeds earlier in the season will help to reduce the use of plant protection products, helping to maximise efficiency of production and minimise environmental impact. It’s fantastic to be working with SMEs like Omega Crop who are helping bring forward the innovative technologies we need to improve food supply, reduce waste and protect the environment.”

After proving the success of the system, the trials have now moved on to real farms in UK, Europe and the United States.  The system can so far detect Black Grass, Septoria and Fusarium Head Blight. Omega Crop is rapidly building up a library of additional weeds and diseases on multiple crops to increase the scope of their product.

Duncan Ross, Agri-EPI Business Development Manager for Crops said: “Agri-EPI seeks to bring together those with the expertise to develop and deliver new technologies that support productive, sustainable and profitable food production, the need for which has become even more strongly recognised following Covid lockdown supply issues. This project is a prime example of what can be achieved by connecting industry, science and farmers on the ground and we are excited to see how Omega Crop’s system is rolled out commercially to farmers in the near future.”

Agri-EPI appoints Claire Hodge as Head of Crops

Agri-EPI Centre is delighted to announce the appointment of Claire Hodge in a newly-created role, Head of Crops.

Claire, who joins Agri-EPI from her position as Arable Knowledge Exchange Manager with AHDB, will develop and lead the implementation of the organisation’s strategy for crops (especially high value crops), fruit and vegetables.

Growing our satellite farm network

Claire brings to the role her in-depth knowledge and experience of the crop sector, and wide network connections. Based at Agri-EPI’s Southern Hub in Cranfield, she will work both nationally and internationally and will play an especially important role in expanding the activities of Agri-EPI’s satellite farm network.

After graduating from Newcastle University in 2005 with a degree in Agriculture, Claire worked on farms in New Zealand before joining Greenvale AP in 2006. It was here that she was introduced to the opportunities within the potato industry. Taking on various roles in procurement, trading, agronomy and factory production, she learnt about the challenges of the cycles in potato production.

Innovation in the crop sector

Claire joined the Potato Council, now AHDB, in 2012, working in Scotland with industry, levy payers and key stakeholders to help growers improve farm efficiency. Claire has a passion for travel and learning and has recently completed a Nuffield scholarship which has taken her across the world to look at potato production systems.

Agri-EPI’s Chief Technical Officer, Dr Shamal Mohammed, said: “We are delighted Claire has joined our team. She brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to lead our work on innovation in the crop sector and to support our satellite farm network, members and partners.”

Claire said: “I am excited to be joining the Agri-EPI team, especially at the moment as the agricultural industry finds ways to find successes through unsettled times.”

PepsiCo chief opens Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility

Agri-EPI Centre are pleased to be leading participant in supporting Indra Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive of PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies in officially opening the Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility at Cranfield University. The facility is a key component of UK’s Agri-Tech Strategy and has been set up to enable industry, famers, agronomists and agrichemical companies to understand soil management issues and to observe changes in crop health over space and time.

Agri-EPI Centre and CHAP are full partners of the Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility and work together to bring the solutions to the industry. This facility provides unique primary-harvest to post-harvest technology at Cranfield University and is funded by Innovate UK through both Agri-EPI Centre and CHAP. To discuss a research collaboration or a commercial project using the Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility, please contact Agri-EPI Centre via enquiries@agri-epicentre.com.

On the day the AgriTech facility was officially opened, Indra Nooyi – who is considered one of today’s world-leading businesswoman – also received an honorary degree from Cranfield University.

Previously, Mrs Nooyi served as PepsiCo’s President and Chief Financial Officer. Since joining the company in 1994, she has directed the company’s global strategy and led its transformation, including the acquisition of Tropicana and the merger with Quaker Oats that brought the Quaker and Gatorade businesses to PepsiCo; the merger with PepsiCo’s anchor bottlers; and the acquisition of Wimm-Bill-Dann, the largest international acquisition in PepsiCo’s history. PepsiCo’s main businesses include Quaker, Tropicana, Gatorade, Walkers and Pepsi-Cola, with more than $63 billion in annual net revenue.

To discuss a research collaboration or a commercial project using the Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility, contact us.

Tag Archive for: Crops

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