AgriTech Seeds Start to Grow in Cornwall

On Monday I attended the Jump Start AgriTech event hosted by the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications at the Tremough Innovation Centre on the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus near Falmouth in Cornwall. As the name suggests the one day event covered innovations in AgriTech with a particular focus on what is, or could be, happening in the South West.

The day began with a series of short presentations and Paul Harris, Rothamsted Research, was up first on their Open Access Farm Platform. North Wyke Farm in Devon has been equipped with a variety of sensors and instruments to understand the effects of different farming practices. Of particular interest to me was their analysis of run-off, weather monitoring and soil moisture every 15 minutes; this is a great resource for satellite product validation.

I was up next talking about Earth Observation (EO) Satellite Data for AgriTech. Having seen people overpromise and oversell EO data too many times, I began with getting people to think about what they were trying to achieve, before looking at the technology. The circle of starting questions, on the right, is how I begin with potential clients. If satellite EO is the right technology from these answers, then you can start considering the combinations of both optical/microwave data and free-to-access and commercial data. I went on to show the different types of satellite imagery and what the difference in spatial resolution looks like within an agriculture setting.

I was followed by Vladimir Stolikovic, Satellite Applications Catapult, who focused on the Internet of Things and how it’s important to have sensor network data collected and communicated, with satellite broadband being used in conjunction with mobile phones and WiFi coverage.

Our last talk was by Dr Karen Anderson, University of Exeter, who looked at how drones can capture more than imagery. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘structure from motion photogrammetry’ technique which allows heights to be determined from multiple images; such that for a much lower cost, you can create something similar to what is acquired from a Lidar or laser scanning instrument. Also, by focusing on extracting height, data can be collected in conditions where there’s variable amounts of light, such as under clouds, and it doesn’t requirement high accuracy radiometric calibration.

After coffee, case studies were presented on farming applications:

  • VirtualVet – Collecting data on animal health and drug use digitally, via mobile apps, so paper records don’t become out of data and data can be collated to gain greater insights.
  • Steve Chapman, SC Nutrition Ltd, talked about improving milk production by making sure dried food is optimally prepared – large pieces of dried sweetcorn are digested less well, and a lower nutritional value is extracted from them.
  • The delightfully named, Farm Crap App from FoAM Kernow, aims to encourage farmers to spread manure rather than use artificial fertilizer. Farmers tended to go for the latter as it is easier to calculate the effects, and so having advice, regulations and the important calculations in a phone app, rather than in paper tables, should help them use manure.
  • Caterina Santachiara, ABACO, describing their siti4FARMER solution which is a cloud-computing based platform that includes data which scales from the field to farm and large land areas, with individual customisation so that users can easily see what they need to know.
  • Finally, Glyn Jones from AVANTI, talked about how farmers can stay connected to the internet, and tech support, while out in their fields. This sounds straightforward, but none of the current technologies work well enough – mainly due to the fact that fields aren’t flat! So a new technological area of investigation is ‘white space’ – these are frequencies allocated to broadcasting services, but left unused in particular geographical locations as buffers. The availability varies from location to location, but it is available to lower-powered devices.

After lunch, there were some presentations on Agritech funding opportunities from Innovate UK, AgriTech Cornwall and the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications. The day concluded with a facilitated session where small groups explored a variety of different ideas in more detail.

It was a really good day, and shows that there is real potential for AgriTech to grow in the South West.

Why Satellite Agri-Tech Applications Will Grow In 2016?

Pixalytics-show preview image2016 is likely to be the year of agri-tech for remote sensing. Its potential has been highlighted for some time, but last year its call was loud and clear.

Agri-tech is the use of technology to improve agriculture production in terms of yield, efficiency and profitability. With a growing global population the need to become more effective and sustainable food producers is obvious, and technology can assist in terms of robotics, biotechnology, navigation, communication, etc. However, it’s opportunities offered by remote sensing that’s most exciting to us – of course, we’re probably biased!

Remote sensing has a wide range of applications for agriculture that range from mapping the underlying soil and crop plus the monitoring of invasive species through to defining seed density optimisation, irrigation management, harvest weather forecasting, yield estimation and long term land change / land use modelling. Essentially, we can offer support from planting to plating!

Despite this potential, uptake within the agricultural sector has been low. A survey of farmers by London Economics / the Satellite Applications Catapult last summer identified barriers that included cost, small-scale justification, reliable mobile / internet signal, lack of software to view data, lack of knowledge and the lack of proven benefits.

So with all of these issues, why are we saying agri-tech will grow in 2016? There are three good reasons:

Benefits Examples – Case studies with concrete examples of the usage of remote sensing are being published. For example, NASA and Applied Geosolutions, worked together using Landsat 8 and MODIS data to examine temperature, greenness, leaf moisture and surface water. This allowed them to develop rice crop management plans, particularly surrounding irrigation, improving both harvest forecasts and actual yields.

Copernicus Sentinel – I know we’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, this is a game changer. Both Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 data have signals that can be related to vegetation phenology, i.e. how plants change over time. As this data is free, it should allow companies to offer farmers products and services that are not cost prohibitive. Also, as the follow-on missions are launched then the frequency of data coverage will increase – particularly important for optical sensors where clouds can get in the way. Pixalytics has a Sentinel-2 vegetation product in test, which has already been applied to Landsat and very high resolution data, so it’s an area we’re looking to develop further – the image shows a Landsat-8 image processed over land using a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) based algorithm.

Other Data – In June the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be making over 8,000 data sets freely available that should cover information such as soil and crop types for fields all over the country. It will provide a wealth of information for farmers to understand what crops they should be growing in which fields to maximise their yields. In addition, the UK’s National Biodiversity Network offers air quality and river level readings.

Taken together these elements offer new opportunities for SME’s to get involved and develop products that will offer real benefits to farmers, both large and small, and will overcome the barriers to them utilising agri-tech. For the right company, with the right idea and right implementation then 2016 will be a high yield year!

If you are interesting in agri-tech and would like to talk to us about what can be done, and what we could offer then please get in touch.

Remote Sensing and Agriculture in Italy

Poster from the Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture Event in Milan on 1st October 2015

Poster from the Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture Event in Milan on 1st October 2015

Last week I was in Italy talking all things remote sensing and agriculture. At the start of the week I was in Rome with the European Space Agency (ESA) discussing the Sentinel-2 performance, before catching the train north to Milan on the Wednesday evening for a series of UK Trade and Industry events focused on technology in the agricultural industry (AgriTech).

Thursday’s event was titled ‘Game Changing Technologies in Agriculture’, and was held in what looked like a large greenhouse in the grounds of Villa Necchi. We began the day with a welcome from the UK’s Ambassador to Italy, which was followed by talks from those working most directly in the agriculture industry. It was fascinating to hear some of the facts and see how much of a technological revolution has been occurring within this field. This is being driven by both the world population’s increased need for food – a 60% increase in demand by 2020 – and the corresponding need for businesses to increase their productivity. An overriding theme was the need to be more robust to, or better understand, the environment, including protection food production from both the weather and pests to reduce wastage.

After coffee we moved onto the provision of technological solutions, and there were a couple talks about how both drone and satellite remote sensing could benefit agriculture. My favourite other talks included the fitting of accelerometer collars on cows to collect data about their move movements more effectively, and the use of robot mechanical hands to perform repetitive tasks.

The afternoon expanded into synthetic biology, nanotechnology and technologies to reduce energy requirements or produce it more sustainably. Refrigeration is an important technology for the developing world, allowing a reduction in the current 40% post-harvest food wastage, but needs to be undertaken efficiently; the engines powering the refrigeration units on lorries produce much more pollution than the lorry engines themselves. This was followed by an interactive session where UK innovation centres had ‘stands’ that were used as discussions points on issues such as crops, horticulture, livestock, aquaculture, satellite technologies and big data. The day concluded with talks by Williams Advanced Engineering (associated with the Williams Formula One team) and IBM on how technologies are crossing from one sector to another.

On Friday, whilst it rained heavily in Milan, I spent the morning at the first Sainsbury’s Italian supplier conference. It was interesting to see how a large company is defining, and following, its strategies that include a focus on simplification; both for the supply chain and what the customer experiences. In the afternoon we had an escorted visit around the Milan Expo 2015. This is a six month exhibition which began in May and runs to the end of October and has the theme of Feeding the planet, energy for life’; it has exhibititors from over 140 countries and an exhibition area of 1.1 million square metres; although I didn’t explore all it! The UK exhibit was a beehive structure and wildflower meadow that was connected back to a real beehive in UK.

It was an interesting week and gave me lots of food for thought on how we can further develop the AgriTech services Pixalytics offers.