Cereals 2018: Arable event showcases a hi-tech farming future of robots, data and drones
- Credit: Chris Hill
A mind-boggling array of innovations and new technologies aiming to drive the efficiency of arable farming were on display at the 2018 Cereals show. CHRIS HILL reports.
Robots, data and drones may form the frontiers of the next agricultural revolution – but research and engineering are already pushing the potential of East Anglian farming.
That was a key theme at Cereals 2018, a major event in the arable calendar which brought thousands of farmers and rural professionals to Chrishall Grange in Cambridgeshire.
Innovations on show included prototype robotics, artificial intelligence and driverless vehicles, as well as a myriad of new chemistry, crop varieties and technology.
At the show's opening debate, Peter Kendall, chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), said the industry is 'on the cusp of a technological revolution', while Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture at HSBC bank, said: 'I think we are in a moment of history. We are going to see things evolve and develop over the next five years that we have never even dreamed of.'
And this theme continued at a later seminar on artificial intelligence, which was told to expect an 'avalanche of new technologies' coming to the market in the coming years, after a ten-fold increase in investment in agri-tech start-ups between 2012-2015.
Joe Allnutt, head of 'robotics awesomeness' at the Small Robot Company, said the industry will transform from its reliance on large tractors to small robots – and the emerging technologies could be very important to East Anglian farms in the future.
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The company is developing a system of three robots, named Tom, Dick and Harry: Tom monitors and photographs crops plant-by-plant, recognising weeds and disease issues, while mapping the farm with highly-accurate satellite signals. The data is passed Dick, which carries out targeted micro-spraying and weeding, and Harry, the seed-planting robot.
Mr Allnutt said such a system could reduce pesticide use by 95pc, and energy use by 90pc.
'The whole system to be working without any [human] interaction is all possible within the next 10 years,' he said. 'But in five years we will have large elements of this in operation.
'This level of precision farming is going to happen, and there is a new frontier here. What has changed now is the technology has matured over the last few years, and robotics and AI have got to the point where these ideas can be a real possibility.'
While autonomous robots are still in the future, East Anglian manufacturers are already using precision technology to reduce the costs and environmental impact of arable farming.
They include Sands Agricultural Machinery, whose new lightweight Horizon 3000 model was among the demonstrations at the event's central Sprays and Sprayers Arena.
Thomas Sands from the Stalham-based firm said the newest Norfolk-made sprayers can follow GPS mapping accurate to 2cm on the ground, with precise applications achieved through individually-controllable spray nozzles, capable of reducing drift by 90pc.
'The sprayers are very accurate and we are saving a huge amount of chemical with no wastage,' he said. 'Without GPS we would be spreading 24m wide regardless of whether it is needed and wasting a huge amount of chemical.
'Our demonstrator model has got auto-steering and boom levelling, so in theory the operator has only got to fill it up with chemical - and we have a electronic filling system for that which is very precise, The sprayer can go and unfold the booms and engage auto-steer and it will drive itself around the field.
Mr Sands said he believed fully autonomous spraying machines are probably 10 years away. 'The technology is very clever, but if there is a telegraph pole or a wet patch in the field you won't see it if you are sitting in an office,' he said. 'Everything is very clever, but you still need a clever person in the seat.'
Oliver Claydon, operations director of Claydon Drills, based at Wickhambrook, near Newmarket, said there was potential to incorporate more data-driven elements into the family firm's cultivation machinery – and Brexit could be one factor which drives the speed of the uptake of new technologies.
'Where I would see it is in seed rates and mapping of fields, integrating soil and nitrogen maps so we can do variable seed rates from satellite data – that is something we can do at the moment,' he said.
'A lot of it will depend on crop pricing, which could depend on the results of Brexit and changes to subsidies. If farmers lose all their subsidies we could see a big move towards precision farming as they will need to cut their costs.
'We will also have to put some safety factors in with sensors for if it runs out of seed, or of something gets broken - we will need systems in place to overcome these problems in the future. And hands-free farming will need new legislation as to what will be allowed for a machine to run around a field unmanned.'
Among the equipment on the firm's stand was its TerraBlade inter-row hoe, designed to mechanically remove weeds like black-grass as part of a 'opti-till' system aimed at reducing costs and the reliance on chemicals. 'Technology and computers are important, but they are not the answer to everything,' said Mr Claydon. 'We need to use mechanical solutions as well, and go back to grass-roots technology.'
The event also included an Innovation Insights session, run in partnership with Agri-Tech East, included a rapid sequence of elevator pitches from companies pioneering new technologies including state-of-the-art weather forecasting, digital mapping, autonomous robots, data systems to predict crop demand and an early-warning system for plant diseases.