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    Advent Day 13: 13 years of precision farming

    13 December 2022


    We’re sure the work started sooner, but digging into our news archives, the first Harper Adams story about precision farming was in June 2009 – when “groundbreaking new technology for the remote measurement of soil conditions” was introduced to seminar delegates.  

    The project ran in conjunction with West Midlands university and small business partners. In the intervening years research has been conducted and knowledge shared across a range of agricultural technologies.

    By 2011, the University had appointed its first Professor of Agricultural Engineering, Professor Simon Blackmore, who had earned a global reputation as a key figure in the research and development of agricultural technology systems including investigations into how satellite and information technologies can be used to improve farming practices and the design of mobile outdoor robots.

    In his inaugural lecture, Professor Blackmore explained the importance of new technologies in tackling the challenge of global food security, particularly in the light of volatile climatic events that can make the use of large machinery difficult. He proposed the use of smaller agricultural robots as part of the solution.

    In 2012 the university launched the National Centre for Precision Farming, with a mission to facilitate the knowledge exchange required to bring “smart” agricultural machinery into wider and more productive use in UK, and global, farming.

    The NCPF continues to bring together representatives of the agricultural engineering sector, the farming community and academics from a variety of disciplines and to stimulate debate, innovation and understanding as the industry makes its transition to smarter farming. 

    Later that year, then Prime Minister David Cameron, announced funding of nearly £1.5M for the university to build its Agricultural Engineering Innovation Centre, to provide a physical resource around which university/industry collaboration could be stimulated.

    Developments picked up pace in 2013, with the arrival of drone research and knowledge exchange. A partnership agreement with China Agricultural University was signed to develop Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). A local partnership enabled work to be carried out to develop GPS control of large farm vehicles. And a pan-European group (USER-PA) was formed to develop irrigation solutions for orchards and vineyards.

    Then the Government demonstrated its commitment to precision farming with a new £160M agri-tech strategy – and later a delegation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) visited Harper Adams to expand their knowledge. 

    The official opening of the AEIC facility followed in 2014, when then Environment Minister Lord de Mauley hailed it as “a world class example of the innovation and agri-engineering expertise we have in the UK.”

    The AEIC was the base for the NCPF’s first UAS seminar – which later developed into the annual Drones for Farming Conference, now overseen by the NCPF’s UAS Special Interest Group.

    As attention turned to precision livestock farming in addition to precision arable applications, Professor Mark Rutter was appointed Head of Precision Livestock within the NCPF and work to develop remote dairy sensing accelerated.

    Funding totalling more than £1 million followed, for a series of agri-tech projects including dairy sensing technology as well as the development of a bale handling and management tool.

    In 2015, Harper Adams and UKTI united to show businesses how they could benefit from the internationalisation of agritech. Meanwhile, students were applying the science at the international Field Robot competitions, coming third in the world with the machine they designed and built.

    As work continued, knowledge grew and was shared across a variety of platforms. Professor Blackmore toured China and Malaysia show-casing the future of farming; on-farm drone safety training was delivered in conjunction with BASIS; and the initial USER-PA project ended with a demonstration of Pomona, the autonomous orchard tractor. 

    Then came the announcement, in 2016, of the creation of four national centres for agri-tech innovation. Harper Adams was to be a partner in both the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) and the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI), the latter bringing the development of a smart dairy to the university farm and a multi-million pound innovation hub on campus.

    The University and the NCPF was ready to start pulling all of the strands of precision farming together. In late 2016 came plans to farm a hectare of land exclusively using robots, heralding the start of the world-first Hands-Free Hectare project. The team went on to successfully deliver an automated crop of spring barley in 2017 and winter wheat in 2018 and up-scaled to the Hands-Free Farm (read more about this from Day 6 of advent). 

    Also in 2017, a project to develop self-driving cars, in which Harper Adams is a partner, won £5million of government funding. The university joined a partnership that aims to deliver support to agri-tech SMEs in the West Midlands, AGRI.  

    And the Environment Minister visited to learn about advances being made in agricultural technology, commenting: “Harper Adams University plays an incredibly valuable role in keeping us at the forefront of agricultural research and development, creating ground breaking solutions for the challenges of the future.” 

    The university’s commitment to developing education and research around agricultural technology was recognised in 2017 with the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education, presented formally in 2018, when the Hands-Free Hectare project also scooped the BBC Food and Farming Awards Future Food Prize.  

    In 2018, the NCPF hosted the first Agricultural Innovation Conference and Exhibition, supported by Agri-Tech West; partnerships were signed with tech companies in China and India; and the university made two key appointments, Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agritech Economics Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer and Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Economic Modelling, Karl Behrendt. 

    James and Karl now lead the Global Institute for Agri-Tech Economics 

    In 2020, work began on the?infrastructure to support the Ni.PARK, a world leading agri-tech research and innovation hub supported by Harper Adams University. The first tenant moved into the site in February of this year, with Harper Adams Vice-Chancellor Professor Ken Sloan underlining the importance of our work with the park. 

    He said: “Bringing together academic expertise and industry experience, through our work with Ni.PARK and close collaboration with Telford & Wrekin Council, helps forge links which not only benefit our students but also boosts our regional economy.” 

    Throughout this year, we’ve continued to work with Ni.PARK at events at the University, at the park itself – and, of course, with its growing list of new tenants. 

    In 2021, we launched Cultivate, a 10-week support programme for AgriTech businesses. The programme has proved a huge success – with two sets of programmes completed and the third beginning in November of this year. 

    Throughout, we have continued to develop new technology, to research precision farming practices and to exchange knowledge across the world.  



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