Projects share £16m in Agri-Tech Catalyst cash

Weedkilling robots and ultra-sensitive apple storage technology are among 24 projects sharing £16m in the latest round of awards from the Government's Agri-Tech Catalyst fund.

Potato greening: crop losses cost industry £37m a year - image: Rasbak
Potato greening: crop losses cost industry £37m a year - image: Rasbak

Peterborough-based Garford Farm Machinery will partner the University of Lincoln to develop a 3D vision-based weed discrimination system for automated weeding, combining low-cost sensors and learning software with "a suitable weed destruction technique".

A consortium including the James Hutton Institute (JHI), the University of Strathclyde and the University of the West of Scotland will develop a "revolutionary" low-cost hyperspectral crop camera for optimum agriculture, led by Glasgow-based specialist engineering company Wideblue.

JHI will also assist the food chain partnership developing solutions to reduce potato greening, which is estimated to cost the industry £37m per year in crop losses. This will include identifying conditions and target genes for light-induced tuber greening, designing a packaging film to reduce greening during storage and display, and identifying markers for genes associated with reduced greening to help breeding non-greening varieties.

Exosect of Winchester will partner with Lancaster University and the University of Greenwich to develop a novel biopesticide formulation technology for caterpillar pests, intended to overcome the shortcomings of field persistence, efficacy, shelf life and cost-effectiveness and so yield an effective alternative to foliar chemical insecticides.

"Automato" will bring together Sharp Laboratories of Europe, the Shadow Robot Company, Stockbridge Technology Centre, Thanet Earth and Cornerways Nursery to develop a cost-effective robotic system to monitor and harvest glasshouse tomatoes. This industry-led project will bring together state-of-the-art robotic arms, 3D sensing, computer vision and object/pattern recognition as well as expert horticultural knowledge.

Thanet Earth Marketing, East Malling Research and Rail Vision Europe will also work to develop an imaging system, TomVision, and mathematical models, PredictTomPro, to more accurately predict weekly tomato yields, aiming to be within 10 per cent of actual. Once developed, the consortium anticipates these tools will generate worldwide sales of £26m after five years.

East Malling will also partner BerryGardens Growers and others on the use of stress pre-conditioning, novel sensors and mycorrhizal fungi to improve crop management, marketable yields, stress resilience and environmental sustainability of raspberry production.

Avalon Produce will be among the partners aiming to improve apple storage by focusing on "flavour-life" rather than just being driven by firmness and sugar content. It will incorporate a novel sensor and allied storage interventions to increase storage time.

Chemicals developer Johnson Matthey will work with Cranfield University to develop "responsive" modified-atmosphere materials to control respiratory gases from produce and so extend storage and reduce waste.

Life sciences minister George Freeman said: "Agri-tech is fast becoming big global business, creating major investment and export opportunities for the UK. Whether extending the availability of UK apples to controlling the infection of cacao plants in Ghana, these innovative projects demonstrate the UK's leadership in developing technologies and companies that will improve food and farming productivity around the world."

Five of the 24 projects will target challenges in developing countries. Round six of Agri-Tech Catalyst funding, which opened last week, will focus solely on international development projects.

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