Innovations for Precision agriculture seems to thrive at Harper Adams University

By Kathrine Hauge Madsen and Bodil Pedersen, SEGES.

Harper Adams University is strongly engaged in innovation for precision agriculture

Britain currently has two universities which specialize in agriculture. One is Harper Adams University (HAU) just north of Birmingham. Where Denmark years ago decided to include the agricultural disciplines into the existing major universities at University of Copenhagen and Aarhus, it seems like this agricultural university is actually thriving and attracting students who aims for an education in food production and not least agricultural engineering. Here we visited Professor Simon Blackmore on 1st June 2017. Simon Blackmore has for six year been head of engineering, and in 2013 he was one of the initiators of the National Centre for Precision Farming, which is an open centre that collaborates with universities and other partners to build a research or innovation consortia, arrange events, and to run special interest groups within certain topics, e.g. drones for farming, big data, and hopefully soon, a group focussing on robotics.

Huge UK investments into agri-tech

The UK government has invested 150 million £ in agri-tech, of these, 60 million pound has been invested in projects and 90 million is invested in establishing centres like the Agri-EPI-Centre, which is currently building new facilities at HAU. The centre is one of four AgriTech innovation centres and includes three universities and a number of companies.

A brand new building for development of innovative solutions for precision farming is almost ready for use The interior of the building is designed for collaboration and exchange of information with room for development projects as well as holding events
Drones and robots for intelligently targeted input

Development of autonomous vehicles is not just for transport on roads, and at HAU several projects are working on developing small vehicles for different purposes such as monitoring crops, controlling weeds etc. If a fleet of robots can carry out the management operations without unwanted side-effects from the heavier machinery and even, through the use of sensors, provide further benefits such as efficiently targeting the input or differentiated harvest time according to crop maturity, then robots may increase efficiency at the farm in particular at the smaller farms. A similar approach is used to develop drones for different purposes e.g. patch spraying in the field.

The Agri-EPI-Centre aims to ensure innovation – not least relevant in a Brexit context

Currently, a new building for innovation within the EPI-Centre is being built and very soon the scientists and company experts will be moving into brand new facilities designed for innovative technical development projects at one end of the building and office spaces for scientific personnel and PhD-students at the other. Furthermore, 27 farms are associated with the centre and have been instrumented with new technology for precision agriculture to be ready for field experiments to be carried out at the farms.  Simon Blackmore explained that there is now a lot of investment in this area, and all activities are in close collaboration between university and companies.

An interesting potential consequence of the Brexit is that many UK high value crop growers, e.g. strawberry producers, are faced with the challenge that farmworkers from eastern Europe who currently harvest high value vegetables and berries may not be available after Brexit – At HAU they are therefore currently developing a robot for picking strawberries, and as Simon Blacklow adds, “we put in further value by adding sensors that can assess the quality of the berries and sort the different qualities in different batches”, so the Brexit situation is encouraging the scientists to come up with innovative solutions to maintain high values crops to mitigate lack of farmworkers for English farmers.

Simon Blackmore explains that the engineering soil hall, established 30 years ago, enables the students to test new equipment and fly drones in a controlled environment.
Development of robots for different operations at the farm is a focus area for HAU