How can a university make the most of a strategic opportunity quickly and efficiently? The answer, for us, was via the HEFCE Catalyst Fund.
Creating new industry partnerships
The major food company, Dairy Crest, planned to close a nearby production plant and move its research and product development team to a new location. We floated the idea of creating a new facility at Harper Adams, but we had to move quickly to secure this option.
We needed to show that we had the site and services infrastructure to deliver the project successfully, so we asked the Catalyst Fund to provide a grant of £150,000 to help bring this about. While the grant was relatively small, the HEFCE backing was an important element in securing the relocation of the Dairy Crest research team to the university.
Following detailed negotiations, construction of the £4 million Dairy Crest Innovation Centre began in 2014 and was completed a year later. We now have 40 Dairy Crest staff working on site, providing an integrated approach between the company and the university, with multiple benefits.
In addition to sandwich degree placements for our students, a number of graduates have secured employment in the company. A jointly funded lecturer is researching novel product lines. Other joint research projects have arisen from interaction between our staff. These interactions have also enabled students to benefit from Dairy Crest experts providing insights on cutting-edge industry research.
In late 2016, we won the Times Higher Education Award for the most innovative contribution to business-university collaboration. We were one of 51 international case studies featured in a European Commission report on university-business interaction launched in April 2017. We were also invited to jointly present our work at the Commission’s 7th University-Business Forum in Brussels that month, sharing our experience of establishing our collaboration with a wider audience.
Going ‘hands free’ with agri-technology
In 2010, we identified a shift in thinking towards the greater integration of mechanical and electronic engineering in agricultural machinery. The concept of precision farming to better target crop management had been around for a while, but there was no UK ‘home’ for this work. We launched the National Centre for Precision Farming in 2012 and, later that year, we made a £1.46 million bid to HEFCE to create a base for the Centre and related teaching and research.
The £2.93 million building was completed in 2013, a few months after the Government launched the UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies. We began to win Innovate UK funding to undertake projects in areas such as agricultural robotics, laser-weeding and farming methods to protect soil health. Shortly afterwards we started a joint masters degree in advanced mechatronics with China Agricultural University. Our UK agricultural and engineering students benefitted from the new facilities and exposure to cutting-edge research.
Our early positioning in this emerging field enabled us to secure a Centre for Innovation in Engineering and Precision Farming with partner higher education institutions and companies, funded by the national agri-tech strategy. At Harper Adams, this meant a new building for university-industry collaboration and a ‘smart’ dairy to support work in precision livestock farming aimed at improving farm animal welfare.
In 2017, we achieved a world first. Many research groups had already focused on creating purpose-built agricultural robots for a specific task. Working with Yorkshire-based Precision Decisions and other industry sponsors, we secured Innovate UK backing to grow an arable crop autonomously, using existing machinery and open-source software.
On our ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project no humans were allowed in the cultivated land area from start to finish. Farm operations were conducted by a small tractor, converted to follow a drone flight plan. Agronomy decisions were made outside the fenced-off field using a scout robot to collect samples from areas identified from multispectral images captured by drones. A drone with a novel grab attachment allowed grain samples to be recovered for analysis. Later, a small, old combine harvester was converted to run autonomously. It successfully harvested the barley crop in September.
Watch the ‘Hands Free Hectare’ harvest (with subtitles):
The project was featured across the BBC, and in The Times, the MIT Technology Review and The New Yorker and has been covered, so far, in the farming and technology press in 45 countries.
Our work on industry collaboration and future farming systems has captured imaginations and prompted worldwide debate. It would not have been possible without the means to support early-stage initiatives generated from within the sector, which has proved to be a vital component in the innovation landscape.
Photographs and video provided by Harper Adams University