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Government hands over £12.5m to farming tech innovators

Some 19 projects focusing on automation and robotic technology will get funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to boost the agricultural sector

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is handing out £12.5m in funding for farming innovation projects.

The projects will be funded through the department’s Farming Futures Automation and Robotics competition, which is part of its Farming Innovation Programme, launched in 2021.

Projects that will receive funding through the competition include a project to develop a system which accurately predicts and enhances the quality of strawberry yields, as well as a project to develop a system which digitally maps and monitors vineyards through the use of drones, robots and sensors.

The funding was announced by farming minister Mark Spencer at the World Agri-Tech Summit in London yesterday (28 September).

“Farmers are always forward-looking, and innovation is key to driving a resilient, productive and sustainable agriculture sector that puts food on our tables,” he said.

“The government stands firmly behind agri-tech innovation as the cornerstone of modern farming practices. By providing opportunities, funding and a supportive ecosystem within the sector, we aim to empower farmers, drive innovation, and create a sustainable and prosperous future for agriculture across the UK.”

Another project receiving funding aims to build a navigation system for field-based robotic vehicles in a bid to improve accuracy and reliability.

Read more about Defra and technology:

  • Projects receiving funding through latest round of farming innovation programme include tech to improve fruit farming and the use of artificial intelligence to improve pigs’ welfare.
  • The Public Accounts Committee recently found that Defra has been unable to measure inefficiencies due to running legacy IT.
  • Some 30% of Defra’s applications are currently unsupported, magnifying cyber risk as the government department struggles to make progress on a digital transformation programme.

The Farming Innovation Programme, which is run in partnership with UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) “transforming food production challenge”, is part of the measures set out in the government’s Agricultural Transition Plan, published in November 2020.

The plan outlines measures to cease direct payments to farmers and support the industry in different ways, such as driving adoption of tech to reduce costs and improve profitability.

Katrina Hayter, challenge director for the transforming food production challenge, said technology such as “robotics and automation are crucial drivers in addressing the challenges posed by a growing global population and the need for sustainable practices in various sectors, including agriculture”.

“By fostering innovation and research, we empower our farmers, growers, foresters and businesses to not only enhance productivity and economic growth, but also lead the way in sustainable practices,” she said. “These projects are a testament to our commitment to improving environmental outcomes and reducing carbon emissions, ensuring a brighter and more sustainable future for our agricultural and horticultural communities.”

The Farming Innovation Programme has already had several successful rounds of funding, with 17 competitions taking place so far.

This includes UKRI’s small R&D partnership competition, which is now in its third round, with £10m on offer. The R&D competition aims to help businesses develop new farming products and services, and be able to take it to the open market. Defra is also running the Feasibility Studies Competition, aimed at feasibility projects, offering grants for projects still in the testing phase to develop early stage ideas, with £4.5m up for grabs.

So far, the government has funded £120m for industry-led research and development projects since the launch of the innovation programme in 2021. 

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