Academics from the University of Lincoln, UK, have collaborated to secure more than £1.6m for innovative projects that will help to ensure the sustainability of British farming and agriculture.

The funding has been awarded through Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, which seeks projects that will improve sustainability, productivity, and resilience of farming in the UK on a path to net zero.

A total of 23 projects were awarded funding, four of which have involved academic teams at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT) and Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS).

The projects have been developed in partnership with industry leaders and look to address issues faced by those in the industry with new, innovative solutions.

The four projects are:

Project High Speed Header (HSH): Next Generation Combines, which is led by Eyre Trailers Ltd. This project will develop a novel tractor mounted combine harvesting implement. This simple innovation will significantly reduce harvester mass enabling a flexible tractor mounted system, reducing the environmental impact caused by traditional large machines which cause soil compaction and loss of biodiversity and carbon reservoirs from boundary hedges and ditches. Larger machines also often provide a cost barrier to new farmers; this new solution will lead to a reduction in financial costs.

The ARWAC Attack Blackgrass in Farming project, led by ARWAC Ltd, will create a robot powered by renewable energy, which will track and hoe blackgrass in commercial wheat crops. Due to herbicide resistance, blackgrass is responsible for £300m of yearly crop losses on UK farms and represents an increasing threat to food security. This project takes mechanical weeding to the next level, using autonomous technology to increase potential wheat yield and drive productivity whilst reducing the use of chemicals, fossil fuels, and manpower. The robot will be co-created and demonstrated on Lincolnshire farms.

Led by Earth Rover Ltd, the automated selective broccoli harvesting to increase grower productivity and resilience towards net zero project will take a proof-of-concept broccoli harvesting machine to in-field testing, developing a pre-production prototype. The new automated approach will not only help address issues caused by labour shortages, with broccoli typically harvested manually, but also around food waste. The new harvester will harvest the whole broccoli plant, opening the potential to create valuable and nutritious plant-based foods from what was previously seen as crop waste

The Collaborative fruit (Co-FRUIT) retrieval using intelligent transportation project, led by Performance Projects Ltd, proposes an innovative approach to harvesting, using a novel low-cost robot platform and collaborative human-robot teams. Artificial Intelligence is utilised to allocate tasks, maximising labour efficiency: humans undertake tasks for which they are particularly highly skilled with robots complementing the human skills. This could include robots transporting berries harvested by humans from polytunnels to the packing stations. Co-FRUIT models the activities of individual workers, while using AI and robots to demonstrate a cost-effective and efficient collaborative harvesting solution that achieves a step change in productivity in soft-fruit harvesting and helping to address well-documented labour shortages.

Speaking about the success enjoyed by the University’s academics, Professor Simon Pearson, Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, said: “We’re delighted that our expertise in these areas has been recognised through this funding. Having four projects awarded funding shows the strength and breadth of knowledge here at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology and reaffirms the role we play in supporting productivity, efficiency, and sustainability through research and technology.

“It’s also a recognition of our collaborative approach; by working with industry partners, our academics have been able to develop a comprehensive range of projects that look to provide groundbreaking solutions to real world issues.”