A group of agricultural companies, colleges and research organisations has announced plans to create a research body that will co-ordinate expertise in research into precision agriculture, as well as data gathering capacity in all areas of farming, to increase efficiency and sustainability.
Core partners in the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation centre (Agri-EPI), which is backed by £17.7 million of UK government investment, through the Business and Innovation Skills Department, include Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Harper Adams University and Cranfield University. Commercial partners, meanwhile, include livestock nutrition firm Harbro, precision agronomy company Ag Space Agriculture, research concern Kingshay Farming, and machinery manufacturers AGCO – parent of Massey Ferguson, Fendt, Challenger and Valtra – and JCB. A further 69 companies are supporting the centre, including large supermarkets, food producers, farmers, processors and engineering and technology businesses.
The establishment of Agri-EPI comes in the wake of research suggesting that in five years’ time the rapidly-expanding sector will be worth £2.3 billion globally. The centre will operate a wide range of industry-led activities in applied research and development, demonstration, training and education. Knowledge exchange will be a significant output of the centre’s work in engineering and precision agriculture, to ensure it is translated and transferred to relevant audiences in the livestock, arable, aquaculture and horticulture sectors.
The centre will explore how to optimise the performance of the highly complex production and processing systems in agriculture, including key drivers of profitability and sustainability such as livestock and plant growth rates, nutrient efficiency, product quality, and health.
Initial areas of interest will include cutting edge technologies such as automated vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones), new instrumentation to monitor both operations and in-field performance of cropping systems, and sensing and imaging technologies to monitor livestock production in areas such as product quality and health.
A central feature of the centre will be a series of ‘future farms’ and processing facilities equipped with the latest sensing and imaging equipment, plus advanced bioengineering, robotics and artificial intelligence systems. These sites will enable the centre to identify issues for research, and provide locations to develop and demonstrate technologies to UK producers, supporting the rapidly expanding global market for these technologies.
Food businesses including supermarkets Morrisons and Marks & Spencer and manufacturers such as McCain are also set to play a part in contributing to Agri-EPI research, but beyond this the centre will be able to draw on a broad range of expertise from outside of food and farming. Other companies set to help bring new engineering ideas to agriculture include aerospace firm Boeing, and motorsport and technology business Williams Advanced Engineering.
SRUC’s Professor Richard Dewhurst, one of the lead academics in the project, believes the centre will be key to ensuring that the UK grows its status in precision agriculture and engineering.
“SRUC, Harper Adams and Cranfield universities have great strength in research translation, innovation and training for the agri-food sector, and the strong industry leadership of the centre will help ensure our activity benefits as many people as possible.”