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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.”

 

UK farmers confident about benefits of agri-tech but unsure of its role in net zero, new research suggests

While most UK farmers are using agri-tech, many are doubtful of its ability to help them meet net zero targets, a nationwide survey by Agri-EPI Centre has revealed.

The Agri-EPI research sought to understand how and why farmers are using agri-tech, shed light on barriers to its use and explore the technologies farmers think will be needed in the future.

The research, conducted through interviews with farmers across the UK, found that 78% are using some form of agri-tech, with the highest adoption rates among younger farmers and those with large farms. The biggest reasons for its use are increased productivity and profitability.

Yet, while the same percentage (78%) of farmers believe that it is important to reduce their farm’s greenhouse gas emissions (rising to 94% of those under the age of 45), only just above a third (35%) are confident that technology will help them reach net zero carbon emissions.

One reason for this could be that farmers need greater skills and support to understand the benefits of technology and to adopt it. The research found only half of farmers rate their skills in using agri-tech as ‘good’, with less than half (43%) of all farmers interviewed feeling well supported in introducing or making better use of existing technology.

Agri-EPI centre’s Chief Executive, David Ross, said: “While the majority of UK farmers recognise that agri-tech has an important role in supporting their priorities of productivity and profit, we are struck by the fact that only around a third felt tech has a role to play in environmental sustainability.

“Technology is one of the solutions to helping farmers reduce their emissions –agri-tech that helps farmers be more efficient and productive usually offers a win-win for sustainability.

“The findings of our research provide important insights for Agri-EPI and our fellow Agri-Tech Centres, as well as for those with a role in developing, evaluating and promoting technology, particularly the agri-food sector, policy makers, agri-tech companies and the R&D community. The farmers we spoke to told us they need accessible training, funding, and more evidence and independent advice to help them make the best use of agri-tech. We want to collaborate with partners across all of areas to ensure the benefits of agri-tech is make clear and the avenues to adoption are easily accessible.”

Of the farmers interviewed who are using agri-tech, popular technologies include machine guidance systems (40% reported they are using this), soil mapping (35%), livestock growth monitoring (30%) and variable rate application (28%).

Robotics and automation for a variety of purposes featured strongly in farmers’ thoughts on the tech that will be important for the future, along with the capability to integrate data gathered by different systems on the farm.

Robotics and automation for a variety of purposes featured strongly in farmers’ thoughts on the tech that will be important for the future, along with the capability to integrate data gathered by different systems on the farm. The findings of the research will be discussed at Agri-EPI’s annual conference, titled The Path to Sustainability, on 28 October.

Defra opens its Farming Innovation Partnership competitions – how can we support your application?

This week, Defra opens its Farming Innovation Partnerships Feasibility and Small R&D competition strands. With just six weeks to go until the closing date, we want to ensure we are best able to support our members build their project collaborations and funding applications.

We have identified a number of challenge themes, in consultation with our farmer network, which we will use to guide our thinking in supporting and developing projects. These are:

Create tools to track and manage environmental impact
Improve data exchange to track productivity and impact
Develop higher resolution farm management information
Automate processes for creating management information
Automate processes for targeted actions
Improve health and welfare of plants and animals

Agri-EPI can provide access to our farmer network, testbeds and other facilities; help with building up your project and consortium; technical and project management expertise; or support with writing an application, as appropriate.
If you are considering applying to these competitions and would like support from Agri-EPI or to find out how we can help, please complete this form, with as much information as possible. This will help us best understand how we can help and where we can add value. If your idea is still quite early-stage and you don’t have all the information, or if you are looking to join a collaboration that fits into one or more of the themes above, just send us what you have. We will then direct your enquiry to the member of our team best able to advise how to take your idea further.

Your information will be dealt with in confidence and we won’t approach any additional partners without consulting you first.

Please get back to us by 29th October at the latest, but the sooner we hear from you, the better position we will be in to provide support.

A winning solution for autonomous farming safety 

Agri-tech company Agribot AI has won the Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm (HFF) hackathon tackling safety and security concerns around autonomous agricultural vehicles.  

A hackathon funded by Smart Agri-Hubs, Agri-EPI Centre in collaboration with Hands Free Farm tasked participants to “hack” a safety solution for unmanned machinery.  The teams which took part came from a range of disciplines, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, Internet of Things, drones and computer vision. 

Agribot’s winning concept brought together cutting-edge AI and vision technology to provide a cost-effective, anonymised human and animal detection system that could work with notoriously patchy rural connectivity. The company is now in conversation with the Hands Free Farm team on developing and implementing their technology on the HFF site.

Agribot were joined by five other teams that included Epitomical Limited, Continental Industry, NextGenAgri Limited, GMV NSL, MNB Networks Ltd

Agri-EPI Chief Executive Dave Ross said: “The quality of ideas and solutions from the teams that took part in the hackathon has blown away everyone at Agri-EPI, the team at Hands Free Farm and our judges – Clive Blacker, Kit Franklin, Andy Newbold and Sarah Walton. We were particularly impressed with Agribot AI’s proposal which has very real potential, and we are excited to see how it develops at Hands Free Farm.” 

Autonomous vehicles offer arable farmers a wide range of benefits, such as better utilisation of farm staff and increased precision and reduced inputs, all of which combine to improve farm economics. 

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. 

Hands Free Farm partners with Precision Decisions, part of the Map of Ag group. Clive Blacker, Head of Arable Produce at Map of Ag said:  

“The diverse nature of agriculture and robotics operating in off-road and on-road environments poses many challenges. Our aim with the hackathon was to bring great ideas from any background into agriculture that have the potential to support robotic safety. We have been delighted and inspired by the solutions put forward.”  

 

Agri-EPI appoints farming industry experts to its Board

Agri-EPI has appointed three farming industry experts to its Board: Sarah Calcutt, Tom Hind and Allan Stevenson.

Sarah Calcutt has spent 25 years working in food and farming. Sarah’s experience gives a unique insight into the business development needs and opportunities open to the British food and farming community.

In addition to running her successful business growth and communications consultancy, Partners in Produce Ltd, Sarah holds a number of executive, non- executive and voluntary roles. These include Non-Executive Director of the Covent Garden Market Authority, Executive Chair of the National Fruit Show and membership of City Harvest’s Food Council. She is a monthly columnist in Southeast Farmer and a regular contributor to a range of food and farming publications.

 

Tom Hind was born in Sheffield and now lives in North Yorkshire. He brings a wealth of experience drawn from across the food and farming sector in terms of policy, industry dynamics and commercial drivers. His career in farming has spanned more than 20 years in a variety of leadership roles at the NFU, Tesco and AHDB. He is a recognised expert in agricultural policy and has a significant track record in strategy development and influencing government and the wider food and farming industry.

Having left the farming industry in 2020 Tom is now CEO of the North York Moors National Park Authority where he leads a team of over 130 people charged with conserving and enhancing the landscape, cultural heritage & natural beauty of the North York Moors, one of ten National Parks across England.

 

Allan Stevenson was brought up on a Scottish arable farm and has enjoyed a varied career as a chartered accountant in a broad range of private and public sector business roles. He brings a diverse range of experience and expertise to Agri-EPI. He is a past Chairman of the Farmers Club, and currently Chairman of two pension schemes, advisor/consultant to a few agri-tech companies and running Luffness Mains Farming, an arable enterprise in East Lothian.

After a business and law degree in Edinburgh his accountancy career took him abroad and then to England where he worked in finance and commercial roles in growing private international businesses, finally returning with his family to buy out the family farming enterprise in Scotland.

Back in Scotland, he acquired a portfolio of NED roles, including Chair of AHDB Potatoes and SCRI which merged into the new James Hutton Institute, both these appointments taking him into the agriculture and science policy environment, with an interest in the sustainability of food, farming and technology. These involved some time developing relationships in China and elsewhere on matters concerning the global potato industry.

Agri-EPI Chair Vince Gillingham said: “I am delighted to welcome Sarah Calcutt, Tom Hind and Allan Stevenson to Agri-EPI as Non-Executive Directors. They bring an invaluable mix of skills to the Board, including boots on the ground farming, extensive policy experience and many decades of business experience. As Agri-EPI moves into the next phase of its growth, they will add huge value to the organisation, help deliver impact across agriculture and help us strengthen our connections to the sector’s front line.”

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/

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