28 April 2021

 

Dr David Cutress: IBERS, Aberystwyth University.

 

  • Technological advancement is undergoing rapid and continual development within the agricultural sector
  • Technologies are moving towards more environmental considerations as a new focus for the sector as a whole 
  • Facilitating farmer involvement with the development and design of technologies is a key aspect that needs increasing consideration at all levels

 

Introduction

The AgriTech 4.0 (Facilitating Research, Development, Innovation and Cross Collaboration within the Agricultural Community) event allowed over 300 agricultural professionals and 100 companies to come together to discuss how new and changing technologies might play roles within agriculture towards providing sustainable food solutions. This event was made up of two online conference and exhibitions days (29th of January 2021 and 19th of February 2021) with an active ‘Technology Innovation Challenge’ set between these dates (with the winner announced on day 2 of the conference). Across this event, topics were discussed including smart farming, hydroponics, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), soil health, data science, analytics, modelling and many more. Whilst many innovative technologies were discussed there was a significant proportion of focus towards increased and easier development of these systems at researchers’ and industry levels. Several large- and small-scale opportunities and grants were discussed aiming to increase the involvement of researchers and particularly to facilitate the transition from research into active applications. However, this article aims to touch more on aspects from within the discussions which will have a direct impact at ground level for farmers, growers and foresters moving forwards.

Companies and organisation logos of those involved in the AgriTech 4.0 event

Areas of interest

Innovations

Several technology innovations were discussed and highlighted in the table below including their intended application within the agricultural field.

Presenter/Company

Technology

Application

Link

Lincoln University

Robotics

Picking/Harvesting, Inspection, swarm/fleet communications, autonomous sampling

here

Ullmanna

Smart weeding

In row weeding cameras + AI recognition to remove weeds pesticide-free (organic focus)

here

DroneAg

Skippy Scout (Drone)

Scouting for field reports on crop health and progress

here

Farming Connect/ GEOM

Unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs

UAV training and legislation changes, Livestock and agricultural applications of UAV technologies

FC

GEOM

Agricam

Thermal imagery

Mastitis alerts currently

here

AFBI

Thermal imagery

Lameness, calf eye monitoring for health alerts

Working with Agricam system

here

LiDAR

Nutrient application and waterway management (targeted riparian buffer planting)

 

GPS soil mapping

Nutrient application

 

Onboard lab for slurry tanks

Accurately apply nutrients as required

 

UAV and Satellite imagery

Improving grassland management remotely

 

Cambridge HOK

Vertical farming systems

Controlled environment agriculture

here

Zip Farming

AI and low carbon

Integration of AI systems for assessing ecosystem payments, discussed electric UAV alternatives

here

Oasthouse

Waste harnessing glasshouses

Controlled environment agriculture

here

Sinafis

Crop management sensors

Targeted optimisation of crop growth and irrigation/pest control

here

AGXIO

AI robotic automation

 

here

IGS

Vertical farming systems

Controlled environment agriculture

here

Alongside in-field practical technologies, systems from Entoprotech (via insect farming) and WASWARE (via recycled adhesives and material construction) showed the increasing potential for waste streams from agriculture as we move forwards. Both companies have innovative ways of dealing with organic biomass towards a circular economy by producing useful outputs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to agricultural waste processing. Adding value to a farmer waste stream could assist with overall farm economics and environmental considerations going forwards.  

Alongside those exhibiting technologies, interesting information was relayed by members of the DEFRA team regarding changes from the previous countryside productivity small grant scheme towards the new ‘farming equipment and technology fund’ and the ‘Farming transformation fund’ part of the new ‘Agricultural Transition Plan’ for England. The essence of these funds being to assist farmers in purchasing equipment at different scales which should have impacts on productivity but with an increasing focus on areas surrounding environmental benefits and sustainability. The DEFRA representative noted seeing this as a route to take some of the risks away from the farmers/growers to become more innovative and facilitate the adoption of technologies where return on investment (ROI) might not yet be defined. Themes of interest included sustainable water management, robotics automation and precision agriculture (throughout harvesting, grading and storage) as well as specific forestry and agroforestry technologies. Examples of the successes of the previous scheme were highlighted through the incorporation of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) systems in brassica farms which led to 4 x longer storage times and 12% waste reductions. Whilst specialised forestry harvesting equipment had doubled the production levels from small scale remote forests by allowing in-situ processing. Whilst this gives an interesting insight into commitments to encourage technology uptake in England the extent to which similar schemes in Wales (such as the Farm Business Grant) and Scotland will function is as yet unknown.

Managing the data

As is well known, new technologies in agriculture come with a wealth of new data, as well as issues surrounding ownership, sharing and value of the data collected. Several talks touched upon this issue and described the development of centralised platforms to host, collect and work with all the huge wealth of data and hubs which are now present across different areas of Agri 4.0. Examples of this included the agROBOfood EU project (which aimed to bring together researchers, hubs, developers and current/potential users of robotic systems), the SmartAgrihubs EU project (which looks to foster the digital ecosystem through connecting and facilitating engagement and experiments between start-ups, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), business and service providers, technology experts and end-users), DJustconnect (aimed at providing a space to store and share data in a safe and meaningful way towards actively developing apps and tools and even collate data for audits for farmers) and the DEMETER project (which has pilot projects across all aspects of the agri-food supply chain to evaluate, innovate and extend capabilities of devices and sensors and data collected across the EU). As companies and systems develop there are bound to be huge amounts of overlap of data collected and systems provided so having overarching platforms which can integrate and highlight these seems to be growing in importance. It was noted in final discussions that the UK currently tended to lag behind other countries in pooling the availability of resources such as this as well as funding opportunities together in an easy to access format for farmers at ground level.

Innovation for innovation's sake?

Whilst it is clear technologies can and are being adapted to agriculture in various ways across the sector relatively few talks discussed whether these were always aimed correctly for farmer/worker uptake and real-life practical application. Championing this aspect, however, were the team from Innovation for agriculture. This consortium has a key focus on the farmer/worker, with innovations of interest having to work well for these individuals to be considered usable. The group work with researchers and business to interact with those at the ground level in agriculture to facilitate knowledge transfer in both directions, informing farmers of latest technologies (such as via the 4d4f dairy scheme) which may be of interest through workshops and on-farm demonstrations and vitally taking farmer feedback back to the developers. They noted that often farmers benefit from their guidance to see the value of being involved in the initial uptake of technology as a pioneer. Being able to provide this base level data allows platforms to be refined as they grow, without which such systems would never progress. Whilst the group are largely England centric they have worked on projects across the rest of the UK and would be a key port of call for individuals with an interest in innovation.

Another interesting aspect outside of direct innovation focus, demonstrating again the movement of the sector as a whole towards an environmental focused approach, was through talks given by the ‘Nature Friendly Farming Network’ and the ‘National Trust’. Both groups highlighted how technologies such as invisible fencing, nutrient mapping and integrated pest management are being trialled and implemented to focus on nature alongside or even before productivity aspects.

 

Highlights

For farmers interested in hitting carbon neutral targets the MAF finance group noted a significantly increased appetite from banks towards funding investment projects on farms to improve productivity alongside net carbon zero targets. They highlighted three companies working in this area; FRE (farm renewable environmental) energy company which specialised in innovative anaerobic digestion systems, ‘OMNI Heat & Power’ a heating and electrical contractor that specialises in renewable energy contracts and projects optimised for farmers as well as Regenerco a solar power installation company which specialise in industrial and agricultural installations. Whilst these are just three examples, many other companies and systems exist and the willingness of banks to invest is a good sign for moving forwards with environmentally-friendly targets in mind. 

The ‘Technology Innovation Challenge’, running between event days, encouraged the development and praising of new technologies. This type of competition seems to be increasingly common for technologies with similar style innovation competitions occurring including collaboration between DEFRA and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in their ‘Farming Innovation Pathways’ (FIP) competition held in March 2021. Sinasens smart agri from sinafis won the competition with their local environment monitoring systems for crops. The system uses the very straight forward and cheap to collect metrics of humidity and temperature from the canopy of crops (via an artificial leaf sensor placed within the crops), soil and surrounding air. By utilising the combination of these metrics, the system can anticipate conditions favourable for diseases or pest-insect life cycles to warn growers, as well as helping to optimise seeding, harvesting and irrigation timings via live and future climate predictions. The key driver for the technology was to provide a cheaper alternative to other systems on the market and currently, they have seen benefits including 20% water reductions and 10 – 15 % yield improvements in different areas of use. 

Another key highlight involved the engagement with the government through DEFRA representative discussions across the event. Secondments of members from the Sustainable Food Trust team by DEFRA were noted in assisting the development of new assessment and benchmarking tools to make farm audits more centralised and simpler for farmers in future. The idea being that a new auditing system could help to prevent overlap of responses from multiple areas as its currently estimated that on average farmers have to undertake between 7 and 24 audits a year. Such a harmonised system (based on previous work) could allow a single integrated audit and also presented a focus on sustainability aspects due to new subsidy requirements highlighting 10 key areas to assess; productivity, soil, water, energy and resource use efficiency, nutrient management, livestock management, plant and crop health, biodiversity, social capital and human capital. If such an audit can be trialled successfully it could act as the main route by which eligibility for new subsidies would be assessed in the future with the Welsh Government already showing a commitment to such strategies through the ‘farm sustainability review’.

 

Summary

The event provided a platform to highlight an interesting array of developments within the agricultural technology sectors ranging from systems which are already actively being employed to models and concepts which have a significant amount of potential in the future. Whilst a wealth of discussion surrounded uncertainties of new government farming subsidies, EU based systems, which were repeatedly questioned during the event regarding Brexit impacts, highlighted that currently, this was having little impact on their ability to maintain and increase UK interactions. A significant amount of emphasis throughout the proceedings highlighted the change in focus away from technology developments for increased productivity towards more sustainable and regenerative approaches. A clear message which came across through the event was that technology is a tool that should be used to augment and improve traditional farming practices but it is not likely to be the overall solution. Two areas that were given their own segments within discussion included soil health through sustainable regenerative practices and indoor controlled environment farming systems. Interest in these areas is such that the organisers plan for conferences in 2021 on ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) 4.0’ and ‘Crops, Seeds & Soil 4.0’ dedicated to these sectors.

 


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