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Agri-EPI Centre

Vickie Cooper and Rob Merrall explain the objectives of the new Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation (Agri-EPI) Centre.

The Government has invested £68 million in three new Centres for Agricultural Innovation. Announced in the Autumn Statement in November 2016, the three new centres will stimulate inward investment and help to revolutionise farming practices in the future as well as creating capacity in the UK to translate agricultural innovation into commercial opportunities for UK businesses.

The investment will finance world-class laboratory equipment, IT hardware and software, and facilities to test and develop new agricultural technology and products[1].

The three new centres are CIEL (Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock), Agrimetrics, CHAP (Crop Health And Protection) and the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI Centre).

The Agri-EPI Centre, which received £17.7 million of government investment, aims to support innovation in precision agriculture to help the UK’s agrifood sector develop advanced technologies that will increase productivity and sustainability in UK agriculture. The Centre has backing from more than 130 corporate members, including most of the UK’s supermarkets, a range of food producers and providers of agricultural technology.It brings together expertise from Cranfield University, Harper Adams University and SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College), but importantly incorporates 35 satellite farms.

EPI office space

Agri-EPI Centre hub structure

The Agri-EPI Centre comprises three hubs with HQs in Edinburgh, at Penicuik (close to SRUC’s Roslin Institute), at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire and at Harper Adams University in Shropshire.

These three academic founding organisations deliver technical and expertise brought in as needed, but the concept of the hubs is that they should act as small business incubation centres for embryonic spin-outs. Providing serviced office and supported technical development facilities for micro businesses and SMEs is the first of a three-strand business model, which provides sector-specific ‘nurturing’ for micro businesses within a creative, innovative culture.

Second is the hosting of targeted research by small focused teams from a range of large and medium sized agri-tech based companies. Dedicated and discrete workshop space is available for hire with specialist technical expertise on hand as required. Businesses benefit from having their teams embedded in an innovative research environment, whilst having access to cutting edge facilities and agritech specialists, resources that they may not have within their existing businesses.

EPI workshop

The third and most potentially game-changing strand involves supply chain issues being brought to the EPI-Centre by member companies. Production problems are highlighted by the supply chain, usually from the retail end via a UK supermarket (most of whom are now signed up members). This might be a production consistency issue and EPI then identifies a suitable R&D funding stream (very likely a collaborative Innovate UK opportunity), and puts together an appropriate bid to address the supply chain issue identified. A typical example of this kind of R&D project might involve novel sensor or robotics technologies being developed to fit into a typical production system, with a potential project consortium involving a plant breeder, sensor or robotics specialist, existing agricultural machinery manufacturers, growers and their wholesale or supermarket customers. The satellite farms can contribute by becoming a bench testing facility for the novel technologies developed.

Providing serviced office and supported technical development facilities for micro businesses and SMEs is the first of a three-strand business model, which provides sector-specific ‘nurturing’ for micro businesses within a creative, innovative culture.'

Satellite farms

Thirty-two commercial farms have signed up to form the Agri-EPI Centre satellite farm network. They have been carefully selected to provide a wide geographical spread within the UK and give a representative cross-section of UK agriculture. Poultry, pigs, dairy, sheep, beef, cereals, vegetables, horticulture and fish farming are all represented.

A significant portion of the capital spend for the Agri-EPI Centre is being employed to facilitate connectivity at the satellite farms, which is well underway. Investments in weather stations, conference facilities, connected Skype cabins to facilitate meetings and overall connectivity to make it possible to test novel sensors requiring wifi or cutting edge wide area network solutions have been put in place. Each farm will have space for researchers to work with the luxury of a reliable high-speed broadband connection.  The farms will have farm-wide, low powered wifi allowing the transmission of data from wireless sensors around the farm seamlessly back to the base station and subsequently to the Centre’s cloud based data platform.

The farms are providing a plethora of historical production data, such as soil maps or milking performance data. This enables the effects of dry seasons and wet seasons to be compared so that the likely impact of novel systems can be extrapolated with a reasonable level of confidence using real production data collected over a relatively short period (one or two seasons).

In addition to this, part of the budget is dedicated to increasing the amount of data collected at each farm. This could be the introduction of health tracking collars on a dairy herd, cameras that monitor the growth of pigs, or a drone to collect crop health maps – anything that can measure variance within the agricultural processes can provide valuable data. This real-world data is analysed and stored in the Centre’s cloud platform. It will be hugely valuable for customers looking for benchmark data to assist with development of products or to populate feasibility studies.

Another way in which Agri-EPI’s Satellite Farm Network can be of benefit to its customers is by providing huge potential for large scale field trials, creating opportunities to benchmark and gauge the commercial impact of new technologies as applied to real world production systems.

Whether companies are trialling new technology or doing project work, the Centre has the facilities to conduct studies on real commercial enterprises, right across the UK. The good connectivity takes a lot of the difficulty out of conducting project work in remote locations and the amount of benchmark data available on these farms also makes verification of results much more straightforward and valid.

The network can also be used for holding meetings to showcase products or ideas, or even linking in to conferences throughout the UK via Skype.

Perhaps the most important role that the network plays, is the real connection it gives to industry. Not only does this provide a stream of ideas and problems that farmers have encountered in the field, it also represents an invaluable source of industry knowledge and experience that can feed into other activities.

The list of putative projects continues to grow and it will be very interesting to review the impact of the connected satellite farms on the Centre’s performance in a few years. The satellite farms themselves will continue to be independent, production-orientated businesses throughout. The EPI-Centre team believes this production focus is important and will enhance the commercial impact of the Centre’s work.

Whether companies are trialling new technology or doing project work, the Centre has the facilities to conduct studies on real commercial enterprises, right across the UK.'

Drone spraying fertiliser

Technology areas

The Agri-EPI Centre’s focus on precision agriculture is based on a vision of reducing production variability. Precision farming of crops involves dividing farmed land into management zones, which have specific characteristics – soil being one of the most important. Using such precision data has been proven to lead to better yield results across all crops when compared with traditional and conventional farming. However, to date, the perceived high cost of entry has proved a barrier for many smallscale farmers.

Precision farming of livestock is all about understanding the individual animal’s production characteristics in a systematic way and specifically optimising production parameters in such a way as to focus production on meeting a desired specification whilst minimising variance.

Sensors, machine vision and robotics

The Agri-EPI Centre aims to bring technology from the automotive and aerospace sectors to bear on some of these agricultural production optimisation problems. It is anticipated that novel sensor technologies from these sectors will make possible new approaches centred on low cost, network enabled sensors.

Machine vision techniques will open up possibilities not before considered feasible in the areas of classification, identification, quantification and task-orientated position sensing.

This last point is particularly important for improved interaction of robotics with biological production systems. Significant moves forward in all of these areas can be expected over the next few years, which will impact on agricultural production efficiency and sustainability.

Vickie Cooper, Regional Co-director and Rob Merrall, Agri-EPI Centre





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