Agritech: growing innovation

Writing about technological advances in the agriculture industry and precision farming is a guilty – and not-so-secret – pleasure of mine. Coming from farming heritage, I am always very excited to see how technology can be harnessed to boost efficiency in the production of food for the general populace, and how new innovations in the sector will help shape farming in the 21st Century.

The agriculture technology (‘agritech’, or ‘agtech’) sector itself is fast becoming a key area of interest for investors across the globe, covering a broad remit, from growth through to harvest, processing, and even distribution. Essentially, the main premise of integrating technological innovations into agriculture is so farmers can grow more food for an increasing population, whilst minimising damage to the environment. But just what sort of technological advancements are leading the way?

In June this year, the Hands-Free Hectare (HFH) project, run by renowned agriculture university Harper Adams, and Precision Decisions, won the BBC’s ‘Future Food Award’. This exciting project saw the world’s first hectare sown with seed, tended to and harvested solely by remote-control robots and vehicles.

The two-year project has completed one full crop rotation (spring barley was planted and harvested in the Autumn of 2017) and is now on its way to producing the first ‘ hands-free’ beer! The same hectare has also been drilled with winter wheat, which will be harvested this summer.

Using smaller-than-usual autonomous tractors (the size you’re more likely to see on a golf course) and lasers, the automotive robots scan a two-metre circumference around themselves for safety. If anyone, or anything, enters within two metres of the driverless tractor, it will trip a kill-switch.

The tractors themselves are turned into robots through integration with drone hardware, electrical components and a motor in the steering wheel. What’s more, the lighter vehicles (with no drivers) minimise soil compaction which can be a serious – and unnecessary – form of soil degradation that can result in increased soil erosion and decreased crop production.

But what will the agritech sector look like in five, ten and 15 years’ time? When it comes to innovations like the HFH project, repeatability and scalability are very important factors. One hectare is around two and half acres, and with the average UK farm coming in at around 57 hectares (141 acres), that’s a big leap for one robotic tractor. For a company to be truly successful, it needs to be able to keep up with the supply and demand.

Another potential challenge is the complete automation of any supply chain, without human intervention. This particular project was successfully completed without one person stepping foot within the field’s boundary. However, human judgement was still required for growth analysis, as there isn’t currently any technology that can accurately tell what growth stage crop is at. Perhaps artificial intelligence or machine learning can one day help, but for this project, a radio-controlled vehicle was utilised to collect a crop sample for analysis back at the farm.

Automation in farming will, without a doubt, become a large part of agriculture’s future – just as it has in other industries. We’re a far cry from horse-drawn contraptions and hand-hoeing, and with universities like Harper Adams leading the way in pioneering new innovations, I for one am very excited to see what’s next for the future of farming!

Babel PR can support agritech companies. For more information, please get in touch.

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Senior Campaign Director

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