Sustainability is a hot topic as the world’s population continues to rise, bringing with it a demand for increased food production. There is growing pressure on food producers to ensure that the systems in place can support this population increase, adapting to the needs of future generations. The agri-food and agri-tech sectors cover a broad scope of disciplines that must work together to develop new technologies, share knowledge and help make farming become more productive and sustainable.
The global agricultural technology sector is expected to be worth more than £136 billion by 2025, including over £129 billion in the autonomous farm equipment market, and in excess of £7 billion in the precision farming market. The UK shows a lot of potential in the agri-tech sector due to the challenges facing farming and food production, not least Brexit, and the government is keen to invest in new technology that addresses the key drivers of profitability in the industry, such as productivity, nutrient efficiency, and product quality and safety.
A growing network of partnerships
It’s often the case that start-up enterprises have innovative ideas but need to bring a consortium together to generate appropriate funding. The Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation (Agri-EPI) Centre was set up by the UK government as part of the Industrial Challenge Strategy, to innovate technology in agriculture. Agri-EPI has four agri-tech innovation "hubs" located across the UK: A Northern hub at Edinburgh Technopole, a Midlands hub in Newport, a Southern hub in Cranfield and a South West Dairy Development Center in Shepton Mallet. The centers bring partners together to convert novel ideas into funded projects by connecting business challenges to technical solutions, helping farmers produce more with fewer resources.
Figure 1: The Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility in Cranfield. Credit: The Agri-EPI Centre.
The agri-tech partnerships cover a range of areas, including the livestock, arable, horticulture and aquaculture sectors, that work together to improve research, development and training in agriculture to increase the industry’s profitability and sustainability. They draw on expertise throughout the entire food supply chain – growers, processors, suppliers and supermarkets – as well as related businesses from the engineering, automotive and aeronautical industries, to develop new agri-tech. These cutting-edge solutions include robotics, artificial intelligence, sensory and multi-spectral technologies, along with other pioneering research and development, such as autonomous vehicles, remote sensing and precision farming platforms.
Figure 2: Bush House at Edinburgh Technopole. Credit: The Agri-EPI Centre.
Robotics is just one area of technology that Agri-EPI is involved with, aiming to improve the efficiency of farming through efforts such as the Hands-Free Hectare project at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. In a world first, a crop of spring barley was drilled, tended and harvested entirely by robots, without being touched by a human hand. Sensory technologies are also improving efficiency, as well as the productivity of farming efforts and welfare of livestock. One such example is sensors – in the form of anklets, collars or boluses within the rumen – that can be placed on dairy or beef cows, which provide a plethora of information on the status of the animals’ health and fertility. Analysis of this data can give farmers an accurate, up-to-the-minute overview of their cattle, from which they are able to make prompt decisions that can positively impact on an animal’s health, welfare and productivity, while also saving money. Precision farming technology can also be used in crop and plant production, allowing farmers to more accurately monitor and manage their yields. For example, there is an ongoing grain monitoring trial offering live information in the field, rather than traditional post-harvest lab testing. Knowing the composition of a grain as it is harvested allows growers to segregate or blend batches in the desired way.
The benefit of satellite farms
A satellite farm network, managed through the four hubs and comprised of 28 large farms in the UK – including a dairy farm under development in Dumfries and a beef and sheep facility in Edinburgh – allows commercially ready solutions to be piloted, supporting knowledge transfer throughout the industry. The Agri-EPI Centre works closely with these farms to install government-funded technologies and partners them with academic research institutions. It also helps with the collation and management of the data from these projects, which can then be fed into further studies. Overall, the network functions as a fantastic pilot scheme for novel technologies; the farm network can show how new developments work in practice before they are adopted on a larger scale across the UK.
Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is playing an integral part in running some of these studies, including the GreenCow project, which is investigating how to measure and control greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep. Elsewhere, a collaboration between Agri-EPI, Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) and Cranfield University resulted in the set-up of the Plant Phenotyping and Soil Health Facility, to enable industry, farmers, agronomists and agrichemical companies to understand soil management issues and changes in crop health. Since 2016, over £13 million has been invested in new capital equipment at the site, which Agri-EPI members can use at a discounted rate. Alongside these projects and capabilities, the hub network offers workshops and incubation space for start-ups to develop prototypes and trial new ideas, including the renowned multi-laser and sensor gantry, also based at the Cranfield site.
Investing in agri-tech is vital to improving farming practices, reducing food losses and minimising waste. Successful implementation of new techniques will therefore not only increase productivity and efficiency but lead to a more sustainable way of farming that can support communities worldwide and will also help improve health.