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Digging deep into how University of Lincoln is supporting Agriculture

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Want to know how working with an academic can expedite the sustainability of the sector?

In this is article we hear from Prof. Simon Pearson, Director of LIAT/Professor of Agri-Food Technology - who talks to us about the many projects Lincoln University are involved in, and how collaborating with them has moved on the advancements within Agriculture forward.

Tell us about the overall objectives of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT)?  OR - In what areas are Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) and Lincoln University undertaking R&D?

Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) are an interdisciplinary research institute which promotes technological advancement across the agri-food chain.

LIAT are very well known for two things;

  1. Agricultural robotics and the development of robotic platforms to support the industry. Within that programme we are addressing 3 research themes; selective harvesting; robotic weeding and crop care; phenotyping. These are all critical tasks to try and improve the sustainability of agriculture and food production.
  2. Digital systems and digital platforms – to connect the agri-food supply chain using data. That’s data trusts, data sharing, data exchange, digital platforms, supply chains, IoT, block chain and using tools such as AI machine learning.

LIAT are also focussed on carbon, net zero and decarbonising agriculture and food system to improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

There are over 70 people in the LIAT team inc PhD students, with a pipeline of 65 PhD students over the next 8 years in partnership with University of Cambridge and University of East Anglia with lots of research going on at LIAT looking at all those things mentioned above. 
 

Tell us a bit about some of the projects that Lincoln are involved it.

Anything on robotics in horticulture with the big one being ‘Robot Highways’ which is demonstrating 6 robotic applications on one farm. It’s the world’s biggest robotics demonstration in agriculture working with Saga Robotics where we have a very good relationship with them. 8 Robots in Kent have been operating since March and between March – mid April those robots have completed 1000km of autonomy, so this technology is really being moved forward.  

We’re working actively on autonomy and moving towards selective harvesting, fruit robotic harvesting is the big one. Very excited about new opportunities in crop care, weeding robotics for agriculture, huge opportunities for 5G, with implementation of a 5G test be. There’s also some really great projects for use of AI for labour productivity and crop forecasting.

 

Where have you seen the greatest collaborative approaches within these projects?

Virtually every project we do is collaborative, a few are intuition led research as part of the University of Lincoln courses. Basic research being intuition led is important to create the ideas of tomorrow, but most are large projects with farmers, on farms and within the supply chain. We’re really proud to work with industry, as we you cannot [in a University] solve a problem unless you work with industry to really understand that problem so collaboration is critical.

The newest collaboration we have is the Barclays Eagle Lab Lincoln and we’re already seeing the benefit at Riseholme not just for those businesses joining the network but fostering collaboration to work together and achieve greater things.
 

Who do think should be more involved in future projects? eg. farming clientele / policy / external businesses or tech innovators

Everyone should be involved! Try to get involved in spaces where there’s lots of stakeholders. Some of the best projects we’re involved in are the ones with lots of different perspectives, we assume lots of the problems in agriculture are technology problems but that’s not always the case. There’s some technology problems but then there are social and environmental challenges so you have to take a multi stakeholder view and the best way to solve those problems is to get in a consortium to see those views. There’s lots of opportunities to talk to people - you’ll soon find the solution to solve those problems.
 

Have any of the technologies developed on-farm have high growth opportunities?

Particularly robotics, we’re really proud of LIAT’s relationship with Saga Robotics who are scaling at a terrific rate. Cleary anything to do with selective harvesting has high growth potential given the issue with the availability of migrant workers and the pressures on labour supply.

As we transition to a carbon net zero world, those technologies are going to be needed vastly.  The great thing about agri-food is the large scale of the industry – everyone has to eat, you can’t disrupt against it, work with it and everything we do has potential to scale.

 

Is there one that can be utilised for immediate commercial use?

Saga Robotics is working on autonomous robotics for UVC treatment of fruit, our next closest is on crop forecasting with a large team working on crop forecasting. Its principles are advanced systems using machine image recognition with met data to try to develop forecasting to reduce waste in the supply chain.

Overall it’s tricky to say with a crystal ball, some things you think will uptake but other more uncertain concepts move quicker. The extraordinary pace of development in the industry is terrific. 
 

What does the future look like for AgriTech – what do you think the next big thing will be?

Very exciting and you need a crystal ball! LIAT are really excited by data - data movement, data exchange in supply chains so people can use data for common purposes such as decarbonising the food system, reduce allergens, all those things.

Robotics in selective harvesting - this robotic challenge hasn’t yet been solved and still needs a lot of research. Good progress is being made but we need to keep going, as we solve one crop (strawberry) we need to look at others and this will be an important part of the future of farming.
 

What is the best way for someone to approach an academic to gain a collaborative project?

Make a call or send an email to get in touch, we’re always happy to talk. We have developed a strong network to help businesses. If we’re not able to assist we will help you find someone who can.  It’s about the power of network, so please get in touch direct or via the Lincoln Eagle Lab.

lincoln.ac.uk/staffcontactlist

 

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