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Agri-EPI network explores data needs for farmers online

Agri-EPI Centre hosted a member community online special interest group titled What has data ever done for you, that brought farmers and tech developers from across the agri-tech sector together online to discuss data needs, successes and challengers for farmers.

The event was chaired by Eliot Dixon, Head of Agri-Tech (Engineering) at Agri-EPI Centre, and discussions were led by David Smurthwaite, Head of Dairy at Mackie’s of Scotland, and Jose Chitty, COO of Smartbell.

Jose Chitty began the conversation with an overview of his Smartbell project, an animal health monitoring and management system that provides unique data insights, focused on detecting health issues in calves. Smartbell makes it easy to gather data and present insights directly on a phone, and allows for farmers to spot problems faster and more easily, and create benchmarks for tracking changes and improvements on farm. This kind of data gathering can help to improve profitability, improve animal health, justify spending, and help to access funding.

David Smurthwaite, one of Agri-EPI’s innovation farmers, then took over the discussion to comment on the farmer perspective for using data and tech on farm. He uses Smartbell on his farm, and though he was cynical and had a hard time believing in the data at first, the app has improved and the system is working well for his team. For David, data needs to be user friendly, as implementing changes and getting an older team on board to use tech can be a challenge. He would like for the information to be more accessible but has very much started to rely on tech to aid him and his team in improving the welfare of their animals.

Discussion followed, where a number of questions were posed to the audience, and an array of thought-provoking answers were shared:

 

Q: What is the ultimate destination for this technology in the future?

A: Data transfer across the industry for benefit and joined up decision making, data that drives actions to help business, and a hand holder for farmers improving sustainability and profitability.

 

Q: What data sources are already vital for farmers?

A: Data associated with productivity, data that mitigates known risks, data that enables yield to be optimised, and data that provides efficiency on farm.

 

Q: What are specific challenges on farm that could be solved with data and information now?

A: Yield forecasting, connecting environment with individual animal performance, prediction rather than just alerting, investment, storing data, and statistical analysis for data.

 

Q: What is stopping farmers from getting the most information out of the data they have?

A: The data isn’t always the farmers but rather the equipment manufacturers, the data is too complex, farmers may lack certain skills or digital knowledge needed to understand the data adequately, farmers may not have enough time or have inoperable systems on their farm, and a lack on interoperability.

 

Q: What are disadvantages of using information and data?

A: Becoming over-reliant on certain companies and pieces of tech, the lack of accuracy of some data, or getting landed with the wrong application. Trust in the system needs to be ensured.

 

Q:Who should own the rights to the data from farms?

A: Farmers should own the data and be able to have a say on what is done with it, but secondary information could be owned by third party. Both parties should understand contractual laws and come to their own agreements, since data sharing is extremely important for the agriculture sector.

 

Agri-EPI will host their next member community special interest group in person at Cranfield University on 17th January, entitled Accelerating robotic systems for agriculture. Find out more here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/special-interest-group-accelerating-robotic-systems-for-agriculture-tickets-464983296557

Autonomous and robotics solutions for agriculture and horticulture

By: Duncan Ross

Farming has been embracing evolving autonomous technology for many years. Milking robots are now commonplace and accounted for 30% of all new installations in the UK in 2015 (Heyden, 2015). By that time, robotic milkers had been adopted by 5% of UK farms (ibid.).

Satellite navigation and variable rate application of fertiliser and seed, and chemical spraying using “green on brown” (only spraying green weeds identified in stubbles) or more latterly “green on green” (identifying target weed species in grass leys), are developments that have been based on existing machinery platforms which growers are comfortable with as they are seen to be familiar.

The leap to the next level of robotics and autonomy is a step most growers have yet to take, as barriers to adoption including integration, costs, and skills which all hamper uptake. Despite this, Agri-Tech developers are keen to move their products forward in their capability, learning from grower experiences and interactions, and breaking down those barriers.

One of the major reasons for robotics adoption is access to labour, both seasonal and full time, with rising wage pressures and competition from other sectors in the economy. This is especially apparent in the horticulture sector with many operations still requiring large numbers of people.

There is a vast range of alternative robotics solutions being created which can be categorised into different types:

Large autonomous platforms that perform the same functions as conventional tractor/implement combinations but without a driver, such as those from John Deere and CNH and a smaller offering from AgXeed. TAFE are developing an autonomous electric drive train tractor, and Hands-Free Farm have been converting conventional Iseki tractors to be autonomous during research projects at Harper Adams University, both adapting conventional smaller machinery.

Scouting for incidence of stress (heat, pests, disease, or weeds) has led several companies to develop combined or standalone solutions. Companies are also investigating how to mount sensors on robotic platforms to capture more representative data from pest and spore traps that are currently left in one position in a field.

Weeding such as Small Robot Company’s combined solution using two separate robots, one to map a field and another to treat it with low powered lasers. Standalone solutions from NAIO, BAKUS use machine vision and AI to identify and cultivate weeds, whilst Earthrover uses light systems for control. FarmDroid works in a different way as it plants crop and maps the precise location so that it can return post establishment and weed around the plant. Nissan have developed a Duckrobot that swims in paddy field and removes weeds.

Spraying of orchards with the GUSS robotic platform which is a direct replacement of tractor and driver. Robots that can identify pests and disease with artificial intelligence and on-the-edge processing will allow those infected areas to be treated and not the entire crop, saving significant cost in agrochemicals as well as being more environmentally sustainable.

Crop scouting being developed by Antobot to count fruit numbers in orchards and strawberry tunnels, assessing maturity and yield, providing data beneficial for resourcing of staff and accurate prediction of produce to marketing cooperatives and retail supply chains.

Soil sampling on robotic platforms from E-Nano and GMV NSL will give far greater granularity on soil nutrient status and possible organic matter content. By precision mapping a field, a robot can return to the same spot several years later and sample again, to ascertain how regenerative management practice may have improved soil health.

Harvesting is probably the hardest area to crack but also the greatest need for growers to save labour input. This could be picking top fruit with developments by Tevel, Octinion, Agrobot and RootAI, soft fruit with SAGA, Dogtooth and Field Robotics, asparagus with Muddy Machines, and broccoli with Earthrover. Currently the degree of computer processing power needed to replicate human hand-eye coordination means all the platforms are slow compared to existing picker rates and need further development and refinement before they can gain parity and be considered a viable alternative to an experience picker.

However, an area that is seen as really labour saving is the logistics platforms being developed by BurroAI, Antobot and Fox Robotics, where the harvested fruit is moved around the plantation by a robot, delivered to a central point and returning to the harvesting location with empty trays. This prevents the need for harvest staff carrying fruit to the central point and allows them to do what they do best which is keep on picking, thus maximising use of available labour.

Automation and robotics will have a wide impact on the agriculture and horticulture sector in the future, replacing humans in menial tasks, simultaneously creating higher skilled jobs attractive to different people. Data capture and processing will allow growers to have far more visibility of their growing crops, providing information for better decision making on targeted interventions of irrigation, fertiliser, Agro-chemicals, and labour resource. This will enhance financial and environmental farm businesses and assist the drive towards a net-zero agricultural sector.

Farm Tech Circle launched by Agri EPI Centre

Agri EPI Centre has launched a free membership network for farmers to discover and connect on topics that focus on enhancing the profitability and sustainability of agriculture.

Agri-EPI has identified that there is a need to bridge the gap between academia, research, technology development and the farming community to support technological adoption on-farm.

“From a recent farmer-led survey conducted by Agri EPI Centre, 78% of those questioned believe reducing greenhouse gas emissions was important to their business. However, only 35% have confidence that technology will help them reach net zero.

“These results highlight the disconnect between those creating technology and those that are using it to support the sustainability of their business. This is where being part of Farm Tech Circle will help.” – Trish Toop, CTO at Agri-EPI Centre

Agri EPI Centre has worked in collaboration with farmers, growers and producers since its conception.

“We have a network of 25 Satellite Farms which are commercial farms that we engage with to trial and validate innovative technologies.

“Farm Tech Circle is an extension of our current engagement with farmers. It is an inclusive membership for any farmer looking to enhance the sustainability of their farm business through knowledge exchange and the support of technology.”

As part of the free membership, farmers will be able to connect, learn and engage through access to the following benefits:

  • Priority registration for Agri-EPI Centre hosted events
  • Engagement with our technical team
  • Quarterly newsletters featuring information and articles on technology, systems or processes to help support business decisions
  • Member networking opportunities

Those wishing to find out more about Farm Tech Circle and/or join are encouraged to visit: https://agri-epicentre.com/membership/farm-tech-circle/

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Tag Archive for: Farmers