Agro-engineering paves the way for sustainable agricultural solutions
NEW INNOVATIONS in agricultural technology offer exciting and sustainable solutions to the plethora of challenges facing the food and agriculture sector.
Producers are increasingly turning to technology to mitigate the impacts of climate change, pressures on a shrinking workforce, and the need to produce food for a growing global population expected to number 10 billion. by 2050.
Pursuing a career in agricultural engineering offers the unique opportunity to be part of the answer to these challenges and to mark â€œThis is Engineering Dayâ€ On November 3, The Scottish Farmer met two people who are leading the way towards more solutions. intelligent and more sustainable. Agriculture.
Ben Crowther, LettUs Grow
LettUs Grow indoor grow technology experts, designing and building aeroponic technology and farm management software for indoor and vertical farms.
Co-founder Ben Crowther has developed LettUs Grow over the past six years and told The SF how he ended up working in agricultural engineering and why he thought it was a fantastic career for those who want support the search for sustainable food production.
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Ben graduated from the University of Bristol with a degree in Engineering Design, which led him to various internships and one-year internships to learn about different industries. But it was in agricultural engineering that he discovered his passion for making a difference.
â€œI always found myself with bags of salad in the fridge that would be wasted, and I felt compelled to find out how we could better reduce our food waste. It was from there, with my co-founders, Jack Farmer and Charlie Guy, that the idea for LettUs Grow was born.
â€œWe started by looking at what technology we could develop to strengthen the resilience of the food supply chain, especially given growing climate challenges and extreme climate changes impacting producers. We wanted to be able to provide a stable growth environment as a possible solution, and which could work in conjunction with conventional agriculture, â€he explained.
Indoor farming is on the rise but remains a relatively new technology and by the time LettUs Grow was developed it was in its infancy – mostly being explored in Japan and the United States.
Ben and his partners have since developed the world’s first aeroponic farm in Bristol, which, like more commonly used hydroponics, grows plants without using soil.
In most indoor growing systems, people use hydroponics to flood the roots of plants with water, but with aeroponics you hang the roots in a chamber which is then filled with a dense mist. in nutrients, which Ben explained can result in greater growth efficiency, pest resistance, and less waste.
The technology has been used to grow tomatoes, strawberries, carrots and radishes, to name a few, however, the main focus has been on leafy greens, with plans underway to increase production.
LettUs Grow currently has 10 clients in the UK, with Ben pointing out that they have generated a lot of interest from new entrants.
â€œWe take the equipment supplier angle with our technology, but our service is very convenient with the farmers. We help them build their own farm and deliver the equipment to the specifications they need and once it’s installed we hand it over to the grower but we’re here to help and provide ongoing training support. when needed.
With consumers more interested in where their food comes from and the carbon costs involved, Ben hopes this will drive demand for their technology and allow them to grow in terms of the number of farms they can supply.
In just six years, Ben and his co-founders have transformed LettUs Grow from a three part-time employee into a thriving business employing 30 people, attracting around Â£ 4.5million in funding and grants.
“I have always been passionate about engineering, but more particularly about its use to solve global challenges, which would have an impact on the lives of people”, continued Ben who insisted that agricultural engineering can being a very diverse and interesting field to work in and it’s not just dominated by middle class white men sitting behind desks.
“I like to solve problems and you can’t do it in isolation, you have to bring together different skills, which means working with brilliant minds – which makes things endlessly interesting.”
In recent months, labor shortages in the UK food and agriculture sector have highlighted the vulnerability of our food supply chains.
As a local workforce dries up, farmers are increasingly looking for new ways to reduce their dependence on people, with technological innovations in agricultural robots offering a possible solution to current challenges.
Halvard Grimstad, Robotics Saga
Saga Robotics robotics company Thorvald has been supplying robots to the berry farming industry for six years.
Hailing from Norway, demand for their services has since led to their expansion into offices in the US and UK employing around 50 people.
Norwegian Halvard Grimstad studied mechanical engineering in Norway before becoming an agricultural engineer at Saga Robotics. He moved to the UK in 2017 to create Saga Robotics Ltd, the subsidiary of Saga Robotics AS.
He explained to The SF what exciting projects he’s been involved in and why he thinks agricultural engineering is such an interesting career.
â€œOne of the first things I worked on was an automated penetrometer, in collaboration with the University of Lincoln, which measures soil compaction on farms. It is a robot that can move autonomously by creating soil compaction maps.
“I also worked on another project alongside the University of Lincoln and the Berry Garden Growers, looking to use robots to transport crates of strawberries at harvest time.”
It is estimated that approximately 20% of a collector’s time is spent transporting crates. The idea was therefore to bring in a robot to pick up the crates in order to alleviate some of these time constraints. He added that their robots are designed to work in conjunction with conventional agriculture, not to replace it.
One of the current projects he’s involved in, which is quickly gaining worldwide recognition, are the company’s UV-C robots, which have been very effective in controlling powdery mildew.
These driverless robots operate primarily at night, exposing plants to shortwave light, resulting in reduced fungicide use and higher yields.
Halvard explained that a farmer in Norway who used four of these robots on his strawberry farm did not have to spray pesticides, which makes for a powerful marketing tool on the consumer side.
â€œOne of the main advantages of agricultural robotics is that it can get more results with less input. It’s a more sustainable and smarter approach to agriculture, â€he continued. â€œOur robots are electric, which means there are no CO2 emissions in the field.
â€œWe had huge interest from the farmers – they want this technology yesterday,â€ he continued. â€œYoung people have the impression that farmers are rigid old people who don’t want to change, but the farmers we met are very open to innovation and very accommodating.
“Farmers want to use autonomous robots on the farm, because it reduces labor requirements and the use of pesticides – which is very important as many pesticides are banned or made unnecessary due to resilience . ”
UV-C robots have been used on tomatoes and cucumbers, but commercially the team is primarily interested in strawberries and grapes.
Halvard and his team offer a service approach to farmers, they own the robots and the farmers pay them per covered hectare. Although this is currently only available on a smaller scale, he is convinced that it will be a huge industry in the future.
â€œThere is a limit to the number of robots we can supply right now, but in the next few years we would like to deploy it on a large scale,â€ he said.
Currently, ten of these UV-C robots are operating in the UK, at two berry farms in Kent.
With challenges to recruit seasonal workers expected to continue for years to come, Halvard said there was a race underway to develop and deliver picking robots on a commercial scale, but that it will take time. .
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â€œYou won’t see large-scale business operations with stand-alone strawberry pickers for a few years, but there are companies that are doing pilot testing. Everywhere on the farm where we can help reduce the need for labor, we want to do it, â€he continued.
The long-term goal for Halvard and his team is to become one of the largest suppliers of agricultural robotics in the world and to continue to prove to producers that their technology works and to earn the trust of the agricultural industry.
Halvard concluded by making agricultural engineering a fantastic career to explore: â€œOne of the best parts of my job is working with people from different backgrounds and different skills. can put in the real world, which can provide value.
â€œA lot of our generation is concerned about climate change and through engineering you can make a real contribution to helping the world as a whole. It’s a career that can really make a difference.
Ben and Halvard are part of This is Engineering Day on November 3, 2021, a day created by the Royal Academy of Engineering to remind young people that engineering is an exciting career that makes the world a better place and contributes to net zero. For more information visit www.thisisengineering.org.uk.