NEWS & EVENTS

Agri-Tech Week 2018: How gaming could change the future of food production

Robot harvester technology on show at last year's REAP conference

How are gaming skills linked to the future of food production? Find out next week as the region’s annual celebration of all things agri-tech swings into action.

Organised by industry membership body Agri-Tech East, Agri-Tech Week begins on Monday, with a series of events taking place across the region.

The highlight will by the annual REAP Conference, which takes place at the Wellcome Genome Campus outside Cambridge on Wednesday, November 7, bringing together experts from across the UK and beyond.

Delegates will be able to find out more about the results of a hackathon held earlier this year, which saw Agri-Tech East challenge technologists to join farmers in a to fast-track innovation. The learning points, future opportunities and next steps will be discussed at REAP.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, said that the hackathon, run in partnership with Allia Serious Impact, aimed to stimulate new thinking around challenges in the industry.

She said: “Some of the biggest companies in the world – Apple, Google, Microsoft – are relative newcomers and their disruptive impact is spilling into agriculture.

“We now see start-ups describing themselves as ‘Amazon for agriculture’ or ‘Uber for farming’, demonstrating how a business model or approach successful in one sector can be applied to another. The agri-food industry urgently needs to attract these skills.”

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At the hackathon, farmers and other industry experts were invited to articulate their agricultural challenges and then multi-disciplinary teams were created to work intensively on potential solutions.

The winning team, called WeedSpot, used a computer gaming engine, currently being used to develop driverless car technology, to create 3D images of a wheat field and weeds. WeedSpot’s approach could have real merit in helping to identify blackgrass plants in crops as early as the 1-2 true leaf stage (ie. first mature leaf).

Louis Wells, solutions and services manager for the international chemicals company BASF, was impressed with the team’s approach.

“I described the various challenges growers face with weed control, in particular with blackgrass,” he said.

“I explained that this now infests more than one million hectares of UK arable crops, and that herbicide options are becoming increasingly limited as resistance increases in the population.

“We need new thinking and innovation to help us regain the upper hand, so the challenge was to develop new techniques to help deliver that.”

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The runner-up in the weed category was WeedBeGone, which looked at electrocuting weeds using a specialist tractor-mounted boom.

Commenting on WeedBeGone’s solution, Dr Clarke said: “This was also an interesting concept, and could be useful in particular situations.

“The interest and intensity from the technologists in working out how to automate weed identification, model the weather or remotely manage crop production was overwhelming.

“The hackathon outputs showed what is achievable in even a short time when excellent people from disparate backgrounds focus their considerable skills on a new challenge.”

Dr Clarke continues: “Innovation is best if it is addressing well-articulated industry problems. BASF gave brilliant support for this, not just by helping to make the event possible through funding, but also by participating and lending their insights.

“We were delighted that over 50 per cent of participants were new to agriculture, having deep technical backgrounds in coding, data analysis, software management or electronics. The passion of the teams to help make the lives of farmers easier and more cost-effective, while protecting the environment, was clear to see.”

Wells agrees: “These concepts also demonstrate to those outside agriculture that our industry can be a diverse and exciting place to work. If it helps to attract bright young minds that might otherwise be missed, it can only be good for the future.”

At REAP 2018, Paul Hughes, Director of Enterprise Support at Allia, will be talking about learning points from the hackathon. Also joining the discussion will be the winners from Uruguay’s HackathonAGRO.

If you have a technology that you think might be applicable to agri-food, the REAP conference offers an excellent opportunity to gain an understanding of the issues impacting the industry, talk to entrepreneurs and farmers, and see demonstrations of the various technologies that are currently being explored.

Find out more about the conference at reapconference.co.uk. Or for details of the full Agri-Tech Week programme, click here.