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Agri-EPI and Hands Free Farm announce robotic safety hackathon

While the advancement of autonomous farm vehicles offers clear economic and environmental benefits, its future growth also presents the new challenge of ensuring unmanned machines pose no risk to farmers, and the public crossing their land.

During Farm Safety Week (19-23 July 2021) Agri-EPI Centre and the award-winning Hands Free Farm (HFF) project have announced they will hold a hackathon to identify new solutions for robotic farming safety.

As experts in the development of autonomous farm machinery, the HFF team will integrate and evaluate the winning solution at their Midlands plot.

The event is open to any company or individual from any background.

Registration will open on 30 July on the Agri-EPI website.

 

Agri-EPI’s Business Development Director, Lisa Williams, said: “The benefits of autonomous farm machinery are many but as it becomes more commonplace in the future, and while more and more people recognise the mental health benefits of walking outdoors, it’s essential that farm automation poses no threat to the public.

“We’re excited to have Hands Free Farm on board to help us devise the hackathon and look forward to seeing the participants come up with some really innovative ideas.”

Innovate UK-funded HFF is led by Precision Decisions, with partners Farmscan Ag, Harper Adams University and Agri-EPI Centre.  It builds on an earlier project, Hands Free Hectare, in which a hectare of cereal crop was grown without any human entering the hectare of land.

Clive Blacker Clive, Director of lead partner Precision Decisions, said:

“One of the challenges of our project is that, like many typical farms, our 35ha plot includes footpaths and roads with public access.  Safety and security of the operation of autonomous machinery is of paramount importance. Addressing this issue will be critical to implementing autonomous machinery and devices in real-world commercial farming settings in the future, and gaining regulatory, market and public acceptance of the technology. We are very excited to be working with Agri-EPI to develop a robotic safety hackathon and cannot wait to see what new thinking and imagination can be applied to agriculture from any background.”

UK agri-tech experts and growers join forces on salad-saving robot

A robotics solution to horticultural labour shortages is being developed to help secure the availability of the UK’s favourite salad veg – the lettuce. 

Agri-tech and machinery experts at Grimme, Agri-EPI Centre, Image Development Systems, Harper Adams University and The Centre for Machine Vision at the University of the West of England, Bristol have joined forces with two of the UK’s largest lettuce growers, G’s Fresh and PDM Produce, in the new Innovate UK-funded project to develop a robotic solution to automate lettuce harvesting. 

Whole head, or iceberg, lettuce is the UK’s most valuable field vegetable crop. Around 99,000 tonnes were harvested in the UK in 2019i with a market value of £178 million. But access to reliable seasonal labour has been an increasing problem, exacerbated by Brexit and Covid 19 restrictions. Early indications are that a commercial robotic solution could reduce lettuce harvesting labour requirements by around 50%. 

Thom Graham, Vegetable Specialist at lead projects partner Grimme said: “One of the greatest challenges facing the horticulture sector is sourcing sufficient seasonal labour to conduct their harvest commitments in a timely manner. In addition, rising cost of labour with no increase in retail price has squeezed margins. Growers are looking at solutions that can reduce labour input costs and maintain their resilience in the sector and we hope our expertise can help.” 

Dermot Tobin, Managing Director of Farming at PDM said: “For many decades our business has relied on seasonal labour for harvesting lettuce. Nearly all the lettuce you see on UK supermarket shelves is cut by hand. Sourcing labour is getting really challenging and with wage inflation rising far quicker than return to grower prices margins are really tight. Our industry needs to embrace robotic technology to reduce our reliance on labour so being involved in this project is of the utmost importance to our business.” 

Richard Ellis, Innovation & Research Project Manager of G’s subsidiary Salad Harvesting Services Ltd. said: “The process of lettuce harvesting has continuously evolved over the past 30 years, with harvest, packing, date coding, boxing and palletising all completed in the field, within minutes of the crop being cut. The cutting process of an iceberg is the most technically complicated step in the process to automate. We are encouraged to be involved and see the results of this project which offers the potential to reduce reliance on seasonal labour.”   

The project will adapt existing leek harvesting machinery to lift the lettuce clear from the ground and grip it in between pinch belts. The lettuce’s outer, or ‘wrapper’, leaves will be mechanically removed to expose the stem. Machine vision will then identify a precise cut point on the stem to separate lettuce head from stem.  

A prototype robotic harvester will be developed for field trials in England towards the end of the 2021 UK season, in around September, then at G’s Espana.  

Lettuce is also a valuable crop in Europe and the US. 123,000ha of lettuce and chicory was grown in the EU in 2018ii with similar areas in the US. These areas have similar issues of access to seasonal labour, offering a significant potential market for the lettuce robot. 

Agri-tech Innovation Support for future funding

Are you an agri-tech innovator developing solutions that improve the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of agriculture? You may not realise that your new systems or processes on farm are real-life examples of agri-tech innovation – and therefore could benefit from research and development relief.

To encourage companies to invest in R&D the UK government provides incentives to companies and farm businesses that develop new products, processes and services, or enhance existing ones.

The R&D tax credits scheme allows companies to reduce their corporate tax bill or receive a tax refund based on a proportion of their R&D expenditure. The scheme can be used by any organisation liable for corporation tax in the UK and meets the necessary R&D criteria and it can even be used on unsuccessful projects. The work that qualifies for R&D tax relief must be part of a specific project which aims to make an advance in its field.

Examples of R&D in agriculture  

  • Optimisation of irrigation systems and water treatment
  • Agricultural trials involving seeds, soils and pesticides
  • Development of crop species with enhanced properties
  • Design of agricultural machinery, equipment, and agricultural structures
  • Food Engineering and the processing of agricultural products
  • Feeding trials: developing new feeds, type of feed, timing of feed, ration timing
  • Improving animal health and welfare: reducing mortality/tail biting

Agri-EPI recognises that innovation support such as the R&D tax incentive can provide businesses with a cash injection to fund further R&D and reward innovation. We are pleased to have partnered with Leyton, the UK’s largest innovation funding consultancy. to provide support and advice to Agri-EPI members and farmers to find out how their agri-tech innovations can qualify for the research and development scheme.

Matilda Hayward, Technical R&D Consultant at Leyton commented that there is a lot of misconception surrounding the types of projects which qualify for the scheme, which has resulted in a lot of companies only claiming back a small portion of what they are eligible for. The government is actively looking to support company’s investing in process and product improvements, which is a big part of running a business within the agricultural sector.

Sector examples of what can qualify

Arable

Trialling new varieties to improve yield or disease resistance | New methodologies to optimise yield | The investigation into hydroponic, aeroponic or vertical growth systems | Improving ground quality or reducing environmental impact | Modification of fertilisers to improve the absorption of minerals and nutrients | Optimisation of harvest and sorting line • Innovative use of technology – drones, sensors, scanners, software etc

Pig

Improving animal health and welfare: reducing mortality/tail biting | Reducing antibiotic usage | Feed trials or improvements to feed conversion ratio | Improvements to number of sows per litter and farrowing rate | Improvements in muscle to fat ratios/ average daily gain | Selective breeding to improve genetic trials

Poultry

Feed trials to increase egg quality / quality | Light / ventilation trials to affect outputs | Housing improvements around poultry welfare | Trialling different breeds | Improving water quality to the farm | Reducing the use antibiotics: trialling vaccines/water treatment | Delaying in maturation |Increasing the FCR (feed conversion rate) |Improvements to egg harvesting (reducing wastage / automating processes)

Dairy

Selective breeding to improve genetic traits | Reducing mortality rates and improving the health of the cow | Reducing antibiotic usage | Investigating alternative ways to reduce the risk/rate of disease | Developing new feeds to enhance milk production | Feeding trials: type of feed, the timing of feed, ration timing | Improving sustainability and decreasing environmental impact

Can you see any examples of your R&D on the list? If so, get in touch to discuss how you could qualify for R&D Tax relief, or  talk to one of Leyton’s technical team, to see how and Leyton’s expert innovation funding services can support your agri-tech innovation full details here.

 

 

Agri-EPI Centre and Leyton announce new partnership

Agri-EPI Centre is proud to announce that it has established a partnership with Leyton, the UK’s leading specialist innovation funding consultancy.

The new partnership will help Agri-EPI’s members and its wider network access Leyton’s advice around government financial incentives for their involvement in agri-food innovation projects. Under a current government scheme, innovative businesses are able to claim back up to 33% of the costs which relate to their research and development activities, such as the advancement of new or existing products or processes.

Supporting innovation in agri-tech

Speaking of the new partnership, Agri-EPI’s Director of Business Development Lisa Williams said: “We are extremely pleased to have developed a special partnership with Leyton. The new arrangement is all part of our efforts to ensure we support our members and wider network to develop innovative ideas that boost their own businesses while supporting a profitable and sustainable agri-food sector. We want to help companies access the best expertise and advice available to help them succeed and our partnership with Leyton is all part of this approach.”

Mark Petty, Head of Strategic Alliances, Leyton UK commented: “From R&D to Patent Box there are some hugely valuable schemes available for innovative Agriculture businesses. Volatile energy prices coupled with environmental concerns and rising expectations from consumers have created a climate of pressure for today’s agri-businesses. Innovation now forms a vital component in navigating both short and long term challenges faced by the sector and rewarding these innovative businesses through government incentives can provide tangible benefits and support future growth.”

Funding the future of agribusiness

Leyton supports a significant proportion of the UK’s agriculture-related R&D claims each year, helping hundreds of businesses, in farming and the supply chain through to engineering and technology providers, increase their ability to fund future projects and grow.

Their team of in-house consultants, which includes scientists, engineers and software developers who understand the agri-food sector, have over a decade of experience working with food producers, processors and retailers across the UK. Leyton helps them benefit from valuable schemes including R&D Tax Credits, Grants and the Patent Box Scheme, which allows qualifying companies to accelerate their innovation strategy through additional funding and/or a reduction in their corporation tax.

You can find out more about our partnership with Leyton, and see if you are eligible for tax credits, grants and more financial schemes on our partnership page.

Ten tips for grant funding bid writing to grow your business

For start-ups, scale-ups and indeed any technology-based company, applications for grant funding are a key part of raising funds for the vital research and development which drives business growth. This is a highly competitive and resource-intense process with no guarantee of success. Here we share some tips for increasing the likelihood of a successful outcome from grant funding applications.

It was drilled into us all at school: read the question. It sounds simple, but it is all too easy to get carried away with enthusiasm and passion for a particular technology or project idea and fail to objectively assess how well the concept addresses the funder’s requirements. Does it fully address the scope and objectives of the competition?

1. Collaborate in the application, as well as in the project

Ensure each partner contributes their ideas, technological insight and market knowledge to the application document. This will ultimately build a stronger project plan and business case and make a more compelling application overall. Nominate one person to lead pulling together all the inputs, but ensure everyone contributes.

2. Build the project from the ground up

Understand how the tasks and work packages will flow and fit together into a coherent plan. Ensure your plan is credible and achievable in the timeframe. Do you have the skills, resources, facilities and time across the team to complete the work?

3. Understand the project finances, early

This shouldn’t be left until the last minute. Each partner in your consortium should agree their contribution and grant requirement. Be sure to familiarise with funding eligibility based on the types and sizes of organisations in your consortium, and any requirements for the mix of partners.

4. Be clear where the innovation is in your project

Ensure you are not duplicating work already done by others. Consider the research category and Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of your work. Is it at the feasibility, industrial research, or experimental development stage? It affects the funding you are eligible for: take independent advice on this if necessary – contact the Knowledge Transfer Network who can offer guidance.

5. Challenge the business case

Thoroughly research the market, using publicly available information, your own business intelligence and experience, consult with experts. Be realistic when you model market uptake, your market entry strategy and revenue forecast. Try to be granular and specific in defining your potential customer base – which market segments are more likely to adopt your technology, are there export opportunities, are there any barriers to adoption which must be overcome – if so, how will you address this? How will your solution deliver value to your customers? Provide quantification and justification of your assumptions wherever possible.

6. Consider the project risks

Quantify them using a rating of likelihood and impact. If a project has very low risk, it is unlikely to attract grant funding, since the justification of a grant is in part to enable risky projects to go ahead in order to realise the benefits of high-risk innovation. Risk should be managed, with credible mitigation strategies in place.

7. Consider other risks

Consider the managerial, commercial, regulatory, ethical and environmental risks in addition to those associated directly with the technology. Consider the new level of risk post-mitigation.

8. Justify the use of public money

Consider what you would do if you weren’t awarded the funding.  How else would you use your investment in the project? How does the project deliver value for money – both for you, and the economy and taxpayer more widely?

9. Check your application

Get someone to proofread your application and have it reviewed independently, such as by the Knowledge Transfer Network. You will receive some challenging feedback; take this on board and address it – better to receive this before submission, than via the assessors’ feedback on an unsuccessful bid.

10. Allow yourself plenty of time

Good bids cannot be written quickly. You need to plan for the inputs you need from your partners to arrive in a timely fashion, allow time for review and response to feedback, and to work out any unforeseen issues within your proposal or consortium.

Bid writing support

At Agri-EPI, we can service our collaborators with bid writing support – please contact us to discuss your project ideas at rebecca.lewis@agri-epicentre.com or check out our service support web page.

Claiming tax relief in agritech with R&D

Claiming tax relief

Paul Crooks of CATAX, an Agri-EPI member, explains how those in the agritech sector can make a claim via the available Research and Development (R&D) tax relief.

“The demands on farmers and the agri-tech sector, driven by requirements for increasing efficiency, minimising or mitigating environmental threats, reducing energy use, waste management etc are significant and are driving an enormous research and development effort within the industry. However, farmers and the agri-tech sector are missing out on hundreds of thousands of Pounds in unclaimed Research and Development (R&D) tax relief.

“We know not enough farmers and agricultural businesses are coming forward because the numbers reaching Catax’s door are dwarfed by those in other industries such as engineering and manufacturing. As one of the UK’s leading specialist tax companies, that finding is meaningful.”

Areas where R&D is most likely to be found in agriculture include:

  • Development and use of new technologies and processes in farming
  • Reductions in the environmental impact of the sector
  • Use of data and the internet of things to aid crop or animal management
  • Robotics and AI
  • Monitoring, satellite imagery and remote sensing
  • Increasing yield
  • Improving labour productivity through robotics and machines
  • Resource management
  • Biotechnology
  • Drone technology
  • Soil management and smart irrigation.

The project doesn’t have to be successful to qualify and claims can be back-dated two years.

Many businesses do not realise that much of what they are doing can be categorised as R&D under the government’s rules, making them eligible for the valuable tax relief that was designed to reward and encourage innovation. The HMRC criteria for genuine R&D is whether an appreciable improvement can be shown, addressing a scientific or technological uncertainty.

“Catax worked with a leading UK equipment manufacturer who wanted to develop their own range of manure spreaders and trailers and the technological uncertainty came about in meeting new mechanical, construction and design parameters to produce a new series of equipment which had increased functionality. Our twelve years of experience in specialist tax relief enabled us to identify and, importantly, maximise the qualifying costs in this innovative project and the tax benefit to the engineering business amounted to £30 000.”

Another client wanted to develop an automatic gas purging system in his potato store and a lot of work was carried out in determining the optimum location and frequency of gas sensors which linked to the automatic purging pump. The total tax saving for this business was over £60 000.

The average tax relief benefit for farmers and agritech businesses we have worked with has amounted to £50,000 – a significant sum which could be reinvested in the business to fuel further innovation and growth. If your business profits from products you hold a patent on, then the Patent Box Tax Relief can also help retain more of those profits in your business.”

Many businesses in receipt of public grants from Innovate etc have been advised that they cannot claim R&D Tax Relief on grant aided projects. This is untrue, although the claim is processed through a different HMRC programme to the normal one available to SME businesses and can amount to a benefit of nearly 10% of the entire R&D project.

As in most disciplines, the results achieved by specialists can differ significantly from that achieved by many generalists and the same principals apply in the field of R&D Tax Relief. Most good R&D tax specialists will work on a commission basis so cost considerations can be dismissed as no fees will apply unless a significant benefit is achieved for your business.

Catax have developed a highly efficient system which maximises your tax benefit but minimises your time involvement while we collect and process the information required.

For more information, visit: www.catax.com.

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