Smart is the new byword in agricultural engineering

Smart is the new by-word in agricultural engineering. “There is a technological revolution occurring across the farming sector,” says Dr Adam Staines, head of strategy, Agriculture and Food Security at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). “Farmers across the globe are using drones, robots, mobile phone apps, vertical cropping systems and satellite imaging techniques – applying this latest technology to deliver novel, sustainable farming solutions.”

Whether it be tractors that can navigate using GPS guidance systems, automated dairies or vertical cropping systems, technology is at the forefront of Britain new agrarian revolution.

Whether it be tractors that can navigate using GPS guidance systems, automated dairies or vertical cropping systems, technology is at the forefront of Britain new agrarian revolution.

And it the agricultural engineers who will be needed to design, build, service and support these innovations.

The government has already turned its focus to the ‘smart’ Agri-business and supports the Industrial Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, which includes the £70m Agri-Tech Catalyst, run by Innovate UK and the BBSRC to help research projects move from the lab to the marketplace.

“Government policy was previously a laissez-faire attitude, ‘we’re a rich country, we can buy the food we need’,” says Richard Godwin, visiting professor in agricultural engineering at Harper Adams University. There was little incentive for engineers to move into agriculture, reflected in a lack of undergraduate courses. But in 2011, Sir John Beddington, then chief scientific adviser, warned in the Foresight Report The Future of Food and Farming of a perfect storm of population expansion, climate change and shortfall in domestic production.

Agri-engineering has the power to rapidly increase food output with minimum risk. As Godwin points out: “Engineering has the key through increasing precision to help improve food output without waiting for large amounts of new research to be done.” It’s also uncontroversial. “GMO and pesticides are an issue, but I’ve ever met anyone who says a mechanical weeding system is bad,” says Professor Toby Mottram, Douglas Bomford Trust chair in applied farm mechanisation and management, Royal Agricultural University, and founder and chief engineer, eCow.

“Agriculture is a diverse group, from hobby farms to those with 25,000 hectares – it’s not like dealing with the three companies in aerospace, four in oil or five in automotive, with needs that are much easier to define,” says Godwin.

“It’s still very much a personal industry, with few corporate farms,” says Mottram. “The challenge for engineers is to move the sector from bad conditions to a very high standard. Farming has been cossetted in the past, but should be treated like any other industry. There’s a need for engineers to solve the problems and feed the world.”

Robotics is a growth area which needs talented engineers. “Robotics is exciting,” says Dr Steve Parkin, agri-chemical engineer and editor of the IAgE institute journal, Biosystems Engineering. “Robots can work outside in fields, but it’s more difficult than in a factory. The elements and landscape have to be overcome, it’s not a uniform environment.”

Robotics are also being employed to improve animal productivity. Mottram’s eCow designs an inert bollus that sits inside the cow, feeding back data. “The industry’s changing, technology is favouring skilful farmers,” says Mottram. “You can’t manage hundreds of cows without technology. The assumption is that high milk output is bad for the cows, but better output is the result of clean, healthy, monitored cows. I have no problem with the concept of factory farming. Most factories are clean, efficient, uncontaminated places, with best practice.”

Soil erosion is huge challenge that agri-engineering is also helping to solve. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 33 per cent of soil is moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinisation, compaction and pollution.

Soil erosion is huge challenge that agri-engineering is also helping to solve. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that 33 per cent of soil is moderately to highly degraded due to erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, salinisation, compaction and pollution.

“You’re dealing with weather and the environment so it’s very multi-disciplinary,” says Parkin. “There’s biology, meteorology and mechanics in the mix. Any engineer from any background can start working in agriculture. Whatever your discipline, you can be part of something bigger.”

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