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Agri-food robotics centre launched

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A NEW advanced training centre in agri-food robotics will create the largest ever cohort of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) specialists for the global food and farming sectors, thanks to a multi-million-pound funding award.

The world’s first Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for agri-food robotics is being established by the University of Lincoln, UK, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded £6.6m for the new Centre which will see a massive influx of high-level robotics expertise at a vital time for the agri-food industry. The CDT will provide funding and training for at least 50 doctoral students, who will be supported by major industry partners and specialise in areas such as autonomous mobility in challenging environments, the harvesting of agricultural crops, soft robotics for handling delicate food products, and ‘co-bots’ for maintaining safe human-robot collaboration and interaction in farms and factories.

Professor Tom Duckett, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at Lincoln, is the new Centre Director. He said: “Automation and robotics technologies are set to transform global industries – within the UK alone they will add £183bn to the economy over the next decade.

“Agri-food is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK – twice the scale of automotive and aerospace combined – supporting a food chain, from farm to fork, which generates a Global Value Added (GVA) of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry.

“However, the global food chain is under pressure from population growth, climate change, political pressures affecting migration, population drift from rural to urban regions, and the demographics of an ageing population in advanced economies.

“Addressing these challenges requires a new generation of highly skilled RAS researchers and leaders, and our new CDT will be dedicated to delivering that expertise. It will be a real focal point for robotics innovation in the UK.”

At Lincoln, the CDT represents an important partnership between robotics researchers from the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems (L-CAS) and agricultural experts from the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT), as they work together to combat these pressing issues facing the global food chain.

Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, Professor Simon Pearson, said: “It is widely agreed that robotics will transform the food and farming industries in the coming years, but there is still a major skills gap in this area. Working with our industry and academic partners to design the 50 PhD scholarships will enable us to expand the UK’s science and engineering base, delivering a flood of skills and expertise that will drive our food and farming industries into the future.”

Professor Richard Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at UEA, added: “Agriculture remains an important and atavistic activity in the UK but it the most dangerous of all the main UK industry sectors. Given that, isn’t it astonishing that so much effort is devoted to robots for driving and delivering parcels to your door?

“This project will initiate a new movement to build robots to handle the unpleasant, difficult and repetitive aspects of farming. At UEA our expertise is in Computer Vision which is making computers that see. We’d like to build robots that can see when an ear of corn has ripened or be able to measure the amount of sunlight falling on a field of wheat or to tell when beans are ready for picking. We look forward to developing new systems that handle the challenge of being on a farm.”

The Centre brings together a unique collaboration of leading researchers from the Universities of Lincoln, Cambridge and East Anglia, together with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, supported by leading industrial partners and stakeholders from across the food, farming and robotics industries. These include John Deere, Syngenta, G’s Growers, Beeswax Dyson, ABB and the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board.

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Farming

Farming Connect’s face-to-face training back on

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DUE to the restrictions of Covid 19, although it’s not ‘training as usual’ as yet for Farming Connect, face-to-face training courses held exclusively outdoors can now resume immediately. This means that provided the Welsh Government’s current Covid 19 regulations are met and every individual involved stays two metres apart, face-to-face training is available.
Training can also be carried out in large, open sheds, barns or outbuildings, where the two metre distance rule and other Covid 19 regulations can be adhered to. Welsh Government has warned that its guidance is subject to change should there be a resurgence of the pandemic.  It is hoped that a full resumption of Farming Connect’s indoor classroom-based training will be possible in the autumn.

Kevin Thomas, director of Lantra Wales, which together with Menter a Busnes delivers Farming Connect on behalf of the Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, welcomed the announcement.
“With all Farming Connect face to face training either fully funded or subsidised by up to 80%, it is very good news for the industry that so many face-to-face courses are now available again.

“Personal, business and technical development is critical as farmers and foresters prepare for a future outside the EU and with over 80 subjects to choose from, this could be the ideal time to learn something new or expand your knowledge on a specific subject.

“New skills will also be especially beneficial for those who have had to adapt their business model due to the changed market conditions caused by the pandemic,” said Mr. Thomas, who added that all Farming Connect training completed will be added to each trainee’s online ‘Storfa Sgiliau’ professional development records.
Registered individuals who received an approval for face-to-face training but whose courses were postponed due to the pandemic lockdown, should contact their selected training provider as soon as possible to discuss their options. Those who have not already applied for funded training can do so within the next skills application window which will be open from 09:00 on Monday 7 September until 17:00 on Friday 30 October 2020.

Farming Connect’s range of subsidised digital or ‘remote’ training has steadily increased since the pandemic first surfaced, and is now available for a number of Farming Connect courses including food safety; business-related training, poultry related training and animal health and welfare topics.

Training options within Farming Connect’s fully funded ICT and animal health training programmes can all be provided remotely, either one-to-one or via for example, a ‘virtual’ group animal health workshop. In addition, Farming Connect’s range of fully funded e-learning interactive modules has recently been refreshed and expanded to deliver more topics.
For further information about Farming Connect’s skills and lifelong learning programme, either contact your local development officer or your selected training provider. Visit www.gov.wales/farmingconnect for further information, a list of all training providers and the courses currently available.

Farming Connect, which is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra, has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.

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Farming

Wales can lead on net-zero farming

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NFU CYMRU hosted a farm visit for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to demonstrate that Welsh farmers are well-placed to deliver on the industry’s net zero ambitions.

The event saw NFU Cymru launch its new document, which sets out that Welsh farmers are part of the solution to climate change.

NFU Cymru President John Davies presented the report to the Secretary of State, who also holds the role of nominated President for COP26, as part of the on farm meeting.

The visit was hosted by NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones, whose 1,600-acre sheep, beef and egg farm near Corwen also produces renewable energy to satisfy the farm’s energy needs, exporting the surplus power to the grid.

As part of his visit to Derwydd Farm, Mr Sharma was also able to learn about the scale of work carried out on the farm as part of Welsh Government’s Glastir agri-environment scheme, including creating habitats for wildlife, tree planting, protecting some 30 acres of peatland, hedgerow management and soil and grassland management.

During his visit, the BEIS Secretary planted an apple tree as an example of the environmental work the agricultural sector carries out to sequester carbon, while also providing food and aiding biodiversity.

Speaking after the visit, NFU Cymru President John Davies said: “By focussing on improving farming’s productive efficiency; improving land management and enhancing land use to capture more carbon; and boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy, Wales’ farmers will be able to play their part in addressing the issues brought about by climate change. By reducing carbon emissions in these ways farmers are in a strong position to achieve the industry’s goal of achieving net zero by 2040.

“I am thrilled that we were able to welcome the BEIS Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, on farm today to see Llŷr Jones’ exciting and impressive farming enterprise, which has carbon capture and renewable energy at its heart. Llŷr’s farm is just one of a wide network of farms across Wales who are harnessing innovation to reduce emissions and produce climate friendly food. These businesses are net zero leaders not just in the respect of farming, but in a wider business context.”

Alok Sharma, COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “I was very pleased to visit Llŷr Jones’ farm and see first-hand the actions being taken to mitigate climate change and support nature on their land.

“I welcome the NFU’s ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2040, and I look forward to working across governments, business and civil society in the run up to COP26 to raise global commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”

NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones added: “I take great pride in the work we do to maintain and enhance the environment, encourage biodiversity and support the local community alongside my core role as a food producer.

“I was pleased to be able welcome the Secretary of State on farm today to show him how we’re always striving to positively influence the carbon impact of our business. I hope Mr Sharma enjoyed his visit to my north Wales hill farm and that what he has seen shows him that our industry has a vital role to play in the climate change challenge now and in the future.”

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Farming

Broadband must reach rural communities

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THE FUW has responded positively to news that there are plans to bring full fibre broadband to an additional three million homes and businesses in some of the UK’s most isolated rural communities, but stresses it must really reach them.

The connection to 3.2 million UK premises, which was given the go-ahead after an Ofcom consultation, is reported to be part of a £12bn investment by Openreach to build full fibre infrastructure to 20 million premises throughout the UK by the end of this decade.

Places set to benefit include Aberystwyth in west Wales, Millom in Cumbria, Thurso in north-east Scotland, and Ballycastle in County Antrim. Openreach is due to publish the full list of the 251 locations, referred to as Area 3, where it will build the new network. Ofcom has estimated there are 9.6 million homes and businesses situated in this final third of the UK.

Responding to the announcement, FUW Ceredigion county chairman Morys Ioan said: “The last few months have served as a stark example of how vital connectivity is. Our own Union staff, many of whom live in rural areas, have been working from home and we have continued to assist members with digital paperwork for their farm businesses. Without an internet connection this would not have been possible.

“It is really good news that this extra funding is being directed at rural communities but we must make sure that it really does go to those premises who currently are not benefitting from full fibre broadband.

“Our rural towns and villages have been left behind in the race for better and faster connectivity and it is critical for the competitiveness and viability of rural businesses, and the economy, that tangible improvements are made now.

“The FUW has stressed on many occasions that those without a connection cannot diversify their businesses, that they cannot support their children’s education and that they cannot connect readily with Government programmes for advice and support payments as they are mandated to do.”

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