From capturing cow burps to crop-hopping quadcopters – welcome to the amazing world of agri-tech
PUBLISHED: 23:59 06 November 2019 | UPDATED: 00:06 07 November 2019
A device to capture cow burps, a crop-hopping quadcopter and an intelligent field-mapping robot were among the vast array of new agri-tech ideas shown to East Anglian farmers at a major industry showcase.
The REAP (Realising our Economic and Agricultural Potential) Conference in Newmarket was the centrepiece of Agri-Tech Week 2019 - five days of events across the region aiming to unite scientists, tech engineers and farmers to find ways to boost yields while improving agriculture's environmental impact.
New innovations in the Start-Up Showcase included Zelp, a wearable device for cows which analyses and oxidises methane emissions via a wearable "node" which fits over the animals' muzzle in a bid to lower the livestock sector's greenhouse gas emissions - while giving farmers valuable data on feed efficiency.
Zelp (Zero Emissions Livestock Project) was established by two brothers whose family runs a large cattle ranch in Argentina.
Francisco Norris is a design technologist, while his brother Patricio is an expert in natural gas and methane treatment. He said as well as being a damaging greenhouse gas methane is an indicator of feed efficiency, because an animal producing excess gas could be wasting 5-12% of their feed energy.
"Already agriculture accounts for one-tenth of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gas, so we see methane production as a growing issue," he said. "We have developed a technology that can detect when the cow burps - exhaling methane at high purity - and captures the gas to convert it to CO2 and water, reducing its global warming potential by a factor of 85 times.
"We can access the data remotely, allowing a detailed picture to be built up of the way methane is being produced, learning about efficiency and animal behaviour as well as detecting disease and trends."
The conference also debuted a world-first hopping robot that can identify, map and kill weeds with minimal supervision.
Crop Hopper, a jumping quadcopter launched by UK start-up HayBeeSee, promises to deliver large-scale precision agriculture that could cut farmers' herbicide use by more than 50%.
Co-founder Fred Miller has a family farm in Nebraska, USA, and trained as an aerospace engineer. To overcome the limitations of using drones to monitor crops, he developed a new classification of aerial vehicle using the cutting-edge concept of a jumping robot with a quadcopter underneath, to help it hover a short distance above the ground with a large scanning radius, so it can map an entire field in a couple of hours and highlight problem areas.
Thurlow Estate Farms, near Haverhill, is working with the Crop Hopper team on potential trials. Farms director, Andrew Crossley, said the concept "looks interesting as we strive to reduce inputs, target crop protection products more accurately and introduce automation."
Around the conference hall at the Rowley Mile racecourse, other exhibitors highlighted innovations including spectral imaging, remote sensing, soil moisture sensors, data collection and visualisation, plant imaging analysis, leaf area monitoring and weather data.
Cambridge Consultants demonstrated an autonomous robot called Mamut which explores crop fields, capturing data on health and yield at the level of individual plants - potentially enabling farmers to predict and optimise yields.
And Drone Ag, based in Northumberland but with an East Anglian training centre at Thetford, previewed its Skippy Scout smartphone application, due to be launched commercially in early 2020.
The system automates crop monitoring by autonomously flying drones, collating high-resolution photographs that are analysed using customised AI (artificial intelligence) based software. The aim is to give farmers the real-time information they need to better target the use of pesticides.
As the product nears its full commercial launch, co-founder Jack Wrangham said the wider agri-tech community still needed to work harder to translate research and development breakthroughs into useful beneficial tools for farmers.
"There is still a huge disconnect, but events like this make you aware of that disconnect and the number of people who are actively working toward bringing it all together," he said. "That is definitely happening, and we see it every year.
"Technology is coming through from the universities to companies like ours. There are other companies doing similar things in various fields like robotics or AI analysis, but we have got to be careful that none of this over-promises to farmers. We have got to give them something that will actually benefit them. In our case, it is a time-saving tool."
The region's academic and science institutes also highlighted current projects, with Rachel Wells of the John Innes Centre outlining research into the life-cycle of the cabbage stem flea beetle, a pest threatening the viability of oilseed rape, while Sarah Barnsley of the University of East Anglia is using remote sensing to analyse plant cover to explore how food resources can be increased for pollinators on farmland.
She said: "I believe that we have many of the answers already and that the key enabler needed is a shift of willpower across all of society to put these solutions into place. Farmers have a part to play, but so do consumers, government and advisory bodies.
Meanwhile Jinya Su of the University of Essex introduced the latest work on agri-robotics and automation for tasks such as fruit-picking and crop-spraying, and explained how remote sensing technologies using drones and satellite imagery can complement monitoring systems on the ground.
THE COMPLEX VISION OF 'ONE AGRICULTURE'
The overall theme of the REAP conference was "Innovating towards One Agriculture" - the vision of uniting efficient food production, technology and the environment with healthier diets and the needs of society to build a sustainable future food system.
One of the keynote speakers was John Crawford, science director at Rothamsted Research. He said it was a complex system - but that presented opportunities as well as challenges.
"Complexity can be your friend," he said. "It creates the risk of systematic collapse, but also creates opportunities for contagious recovery.
"I think the concept of One Agriculture is about how we create that transformation. How do we transform the food system so it does not just have a benign effect on the environment, it repairs the environment and supports human health? Because it does none of those things now."