By 2050, the world population is projected to reach 9.7 billion, and is currently growing by approximately 83 million people each year1.
Agriculture is one of the key industries where changes must be made to meet these challenges in order to create a sustainable future for the next generations. With two billion more mouths to feed, security of food supply will be at risk if we continue to use traditional agricultural methods.
Agri-tech is the use of technology in agriculture, horticulture, and aquaculture with the aim of improving yield, efficiency, and profitability. Agri-tech can include products, services, or applications derived from agriculture that improve various input and output processes2. The agri-tech sector is undergoing an exciting transformation, developing new technologies to expand food production whilst reducing the impact on the environment; pushing the UK towards the forefront of global agricultural innovation.
Harper Adams is leading the way in agricultural technology - having built up expertise, facilities, research centres and industry partnerships to drive forward to development and adoption of smart machines for more efficient, sustainable farming.
In 2010, we identified a shift in thinking towards the greater integration of mechanical and electronic engineering in agricultural machinery.
The concept of precision farming to better target crop management had been around for a while, but there was no UK 'home' for this work. We launched the National Centre for Precision Farming in 2012 and, later that year, we made a £1.46 million bid to HEFCE to create a base for the Centre and related teaching and research.
The £2.93 million Agricultural Engineering Innovation Centre was completed in 2013, a few months after the Government launched the UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies. We began to win Innovate UK funding to undertake projects in areas such as agricultural robotics, laser-weeding and farming methods to protect soil health. Shortly afterwards we started a joint masters degree in advanced mechatronics with China Agricultural University. Our UK agricultural and engineering students benefitted from the new facilities and exposure to cutting-edge research.
Our early positioning in this emerging field enabled us to secure a Centre for Innovation in Engineering and Precision Farming (Agri-EPI Centre) with partner higher education institutions and companies, funded by the national agri-tech strategy. At Harper Adams, this meant a new 'hub' building for university-industry collaboration and a 'smart' dairy to support work in precision livestock farming aimed at improving farm animal welfare.
In 2017, we achieved a world first with the Hands Free Hectare project. Many research groups had already focused on creating purpose-built agricultural robots for a specific task. Working with Yorkshire-based Precision Decisions and other industry sponsors, we secured Innovate UK backing to successfully grow an arable crop autonomously, using existing machinery and open-source software.