The official launch last week of a £40 million ($52 million) engineering, precision and innovation (EPI) complex in the UK is the first tangible evidence of progress to emerge from Britain’s £160 million Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, which was first announced in 2014.
Located at Harper Adams University, close to the England-Wales border, the new center, dubbed the Agri-EPI Centre, is the first of four agritech innovation centers under the strategy that are being jointly funded by the ag industry and the government. The other three centres will cover big data, crop health and livestock although none are currently as advanced as Agri-EPI.
“The Government’s £80m commitment to agri R&D in 2014, matched 50/50 by industry funding, was driven by the realisation that the efficiency of farm production in the UK has fallen in recent years and needs reviving,” said Willie Thomson, chairman of the center. “There was a clear and an urgent need for new money to be invested in research to deliver cutting edge science. That’s what Agri-EPI is all about and we’re excited by the prospects.”
Agri-EPI hopes to become a center for world class farm science for precision ag and engineering for the livestock, arable, horticulture and aquaculture sectors, by bringing together leading industry players with students from Harper Adams, startups working in the industry, as well as leading tech companies.
“Agri-EPI is industry-led, being backed by 80 major food, farming and technology companies,” Thomson told AgFunderNews. “These companies have massive financial resources and a combined technical and sales presence in over 200 countries. This gives us direct access into markets around the world for the top level, innovative farm science which we’re confident Agri-EPI will produce over the next few years.”
Projects currently under discussion for the first phase of work at the new center include:
- Systems to facilitate more effective application of agro-chemicals.
- Robotics for planting, monitoring and harvesting crops.
- Robotic systems for monitoring and milking dairy animals.
- Systems to monitor feed quality and/or responses to animal feeding in real time.
- Sensors to monitor live-weight gain and potential carcase characteristics in live animals.
- Use of drones and satellites within arable production.
The necessary technology, people and finance needed to carry such projects through to global commercialisation is already in place, says Thomson.
“We’re setting up a structure where some of the biggest UK companies can work with smaller SMEs to develop cutting edge advances, with a talented pool of Harper Adams’ students on site to be involved in the R&D process,” he said.
“We have high technology skills available to us from Agri-EPI members such as the Williams Formula One team and Boeing. There is a massive technology base connected to such operations with imaging and analytical benefits which we need to start applying to agriculture.
“We also have a fantastic student talent pool which will be far better used if applied to real R&D work with top companies under the Agri-EPI structure, than used for academic studies as has happened in the past. In situations where a major company takes a research project on for commercial development, they will be ideally placed to ‘cherry pick’ the best student talent to work with them.
“We’re also structured to work closely with startups and venture capitalists in developing technologies for the future. We already have Par Equity on board and are talking to others with a view to their potential involvement with us.
“Ultimately, however, Agri-EPI will be farmer-based and farmer-driven, giving us a practical industry base from which to develop. We have already recruited 40 farmers, all at the top of the industry, to work with us to trial developments at farm level and tell us what works and what doesn’t.
Agri-EPI’s core members are Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Harper Adams University, Cranfield University, Harbro, AgSpace Agriculture, and Kingshay Farming. The 80 member companies include supermarkets Morrison’s and Marks & Spencer; engineering companies, Williams Advanced Engineering and JCB, primary processors, McCain and others, and major international businesses such as Boeing.