N8 AgriFood calls for a “fundamental rethink” in Agritech engineering

Engineering scientists within N8 AgriFood are calling for a fundamental rethink in how agri-tech is taught and understood if the UK is to avoid being left behind in the global Green Revolution.

A new generation of hybrid biologist-engineers needs to be created in order for precision agriculture to truly hit mainstream farming, with a requirement for Government and industry to join forces to fund specialised training programmes.

Precision agriculture has widely been regarded as a solution to many of the challenges facing the farming sector as food producers look to feed a growing global population amid extreme weather due to climate change and an increase in the tolerance of pests and weeds with an equally increasing level of regulation to protect the environment.

However, advances in agri-technologies to automate and robotise aspects of the farming process have so far been limited to high value, but low volume sectors such as horticulture or soft fruit production.

Scientists within N8 AgriFood argue that in order for Artificial Intelligence and Smart Tech to hit large scale farming of broadacre crops, such a cereals, there needs to be a paradigm shift in their capabilities.

Professor Bruce Grieve, N8 AgriFood’s chair in Agri Sensors & Electronics, and a director at the University of Manchester’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering,said: “What we have been arguing is that for precision agriculture to truly hit the mainstream (i.e. to make a major impact in broadacre cereals farming, etc., and not just specialty crops), there needs to be a number of policy changes to the way the discipline is both taught and understood by the industry.

“That is, moving away from engineering solutions alone to ones where engineers and biologists have a complementary understanding of the opportunities offered by either approach and so can co-deliver the next generation of technologies.”

Professor Grieve’s calls have been made in a paper, published in Global Food Security journal, which outlines recommendations to encourage AI enabled Smart Technologies to impact across all sectors of global agriculture.

The paper, co-authored by Professor Grieve, states: “For broadacre crops a wholly new approach is necessary, requiring the establishment of an integrated biology and physical engineering infrastructure, which can work in harmony with current breeding, chemistry and agronomic solutions.

“First and foremost is the need to create a cohort of physical engineering graduates who also have adequate familiarity with biological concepts and agronomy, and vice-versa for a complementary cohort of biology graduates to be trained to have an appreciation of the possibilities offered by relevant elements of engineering and AI.

“To deliver this there are a number of major and interlinked challenges that need to be addressed, namely enabling investment, professional education and regulatory or policy constraints.”

Recommendations laid out in the paper include a joined up programme of Government and industry investment which links different levels of technology development, as well as extending research in the sociological and psychological factors influencing the uptake of any new Smart Technology concepts by the agricultural sector. Aligned to this is recommendations for Government subsidies to support the transition of the developed smart sensing, AI and robotics technologies into the mainstream sector so that the commercial and environmental benefits can be realised quickly, beyond the early-adopter farmers.

Alongside the investment policy changes, the Paper cites the potential within governments to adapt the regulatory environment to reflect the capabilities of the new technologies, covering chemical regulation and the need for national and international standards on the format of intelligent autonomous agri sensing and robotic systems.

The challenges to Government and industry laid out in the paper have been backed by The Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE).

Alastair Taylor, IAgrE CEO commented: “As an Agricultural Engineer I have always viewed myself as multi disciplinary with the need to engage with aspects of chemistry and biology, and as such, have always been critical of the silo mentality espoused by so many disciplines but the advent of Agri-tech means that we must work differently and let go.

“We must learn to connect engineers, technologist and scientists in a different way and the starting point has to be universities and the research community who need to revisit the way they link the disciplines in a new way. We have to do this is we are to achieve global food security.”


Read Professor Grieve’s paper “The challenges posed by global broadacre crops in delivering smart agri-robotic solutions: A fundamental rethink is required” HERE