“The agri-hackathon this weekend was amazing; groups of people who hadn’t thought about how they could support change in how food is grown, were brought together and came up with some truly awesome ideas with global impact – really taking on the challenge of how to change the world in 48 hours.“
– Jon Paterson of Barclays Eagle Labs, who were facilitating Agri-Tech East’s second agri-hackathon.
The theme for the GROW agri-hackathon event was ’48 hours to save the world’ – a number of challenges were presented to the group of enthusiastic tech-savvy ‘hackers’.
The fertility of soils is determined not just on its mineral content but also the living community of microorganisms within it. They play a vital role in maintaining the soil structure and also in nutrient cycling. Professor John Crawford of Rothamsted Research explained how water, oxygen and nutrients can move through healthy soils and how they are resilient to adverse weather and also how they have a valuable role in mitigating greenhouse gases.
John Crawford comments: “The food system needs a disruption, not an improvement. It’s not about doing what we already do more precisely or efficiently, it’s about changing the whole game. Disruption won’t come from the traditional disciplines or conventional thinkers. It’ll come from outside, where no-one is looking. The hackathon brought together an amazing bunch of young outsiders and non-conventional ideas.”
Managing water is a big challenge for global agriculture – there are concerns that in the UK that the gap between water available and water need is getting dangerously tight at times. Anthony Hopkins of Wroot Water Ltd was on hand to explain the issues and make available water datasets.
Anthony Hopkins comments: “I did not know what to expect but was truly astounded by the thought process, then to come up with a solution to a problem with all the bits of electronics that were available. It just show what talent we have available.“
Biodiversity was discussed by WWF-UK, a sponsor of the agri-hackathon; Richard Perkins comments: “We so need the next generation to be engaged in finding solutions that will restore nature in the food system and these teams all made great contributions towards doing that.
“Thank you for inviting me to specify the restore biodiversity problem which clearly engaged several of the hacking teams. The results that all the teams developed during the hackathon amazed me, as well as their dedication.
“It was a delight to take part with you and all the other highly skilled organisers and participants. I am so pleased that we were able to sponsor this and that you enlisted the participation of so many gifted and enthusiastic hackers.”
BASF were sponsors for the agri-hackathon for the second year running. Louis Wells, Agricultural Solutions and Services Manager for BASF, comments: “What makes a great hackathon is the combined force and ideas from participants with different backgrounds.
“It’s this diversity, together with networking and fresh perspectives, that can bring some fascinating new approaches to tackle the challenges that agriculture faces. These ideas then have the potential – if worked on and developed further – to deliver brand new agricultural innovations.”
David Gowans, Head of Digital Design and Innovation at Barclays Ventures, says: “It’s something special to be part of a weekend that brought together experts and energetic skilled hackers dedicated to take on challenges to help make a better world.”
The judging panel for the GROW agri-hackathon were, clockwise from top left:
Richard Ostler, Head of Ecoinformatics at Rothamsted Research; Sharon Jones , Eagle Lab Engineer at Barclays UK Ventures; Mike Green, Agriculture Sustainability Manager at BASF; Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East; Richard Perkins, Food, Agriculture and Land Use Specialist at WWF.
Improved insect identification and methods of remote sensing to assess number and direction of threat would aid control of pests and also allow insects to be used as bio-indicators of habitat health.
Alpaca Punch developed an insect ID systems using computer vision and bioacoustics to identify and count the number of insects in a sample. The team used Raspberry Pi and open source software to identify the type of insect based their unique audio signatures. The intention would be to have an array of sensors across the field which when integrated with weather data would indicate when certain types of insects are prevalent and the direction of travel. This would create an early warning system for farmers.
Judges’ feedback: The team developed an effective solution using off-the-shelf low cost sensor hardware and open source software to support integrated pest management for a target crop and species. The team showed a good understanding of the economic impact of these pests and the importance of sharing data to understand pest dynamics in the wider landscape.
(Three) Two Men and Some Insects (Three) Two Men And Some Insects also looked at insect sampling and how to incorporate continual sampling of on-farm insect populations within the farming day.
The team used machine learning tools and cheap off-the-shelf components to deliver an open source sensor system for insect identification. The idea is that as the air passed through a tractor-mounted air intake system the insects would be sampled. This would use both the existing mobility and telemetric tools on the tractors.
Judges’ feedback: The team had an excellent understanding of the time and financial constraints on farmers and worked within these to develop an open source tractor mounted insect sensor which could also be re-purposed for static monitoring. Perhaps more importantly they understood some of the limitations of the sensor technology available and the difficulties of real-world deployment
Soil health is determined by a number of factors and there is not yet an objective way to measure it.
YEL developed a farmer-oriented biodiversity measurement tool. They used Agrimetrics datasets which included rainfall, average temperature and humidity to gain an understanding of the environmental factors and soil properties as a proxy for biodiversity. These provided inputs into a model that used a regression relationship to estimate biodiversity for invertebrates and microbes.
From this they demonstrated how an index for soil health could be developed and tested it using a training set based on real world data.
Judges’ feedback: The team developed a farmer friendly mobile app for farmers to assess their field biodiversity. To do this they gave an excellent example of data re-use by applying machine learning to data extracted from the Agrimetrics Field Explorer API. The team had clearly thought about the scalability and potential to draw in other data sources for more robust biodiversity assessments.
Geodragons used a different approach to identify key parameters of soil health. They developed a way to offer multi-depth soil profiling, building a new modular soils sensor and an associated app, with a Bluetooth LE base station connected to a router via LoRan to an app in the cloud. A dashboard on the app can measure infiltration rates and advise on irrigation protocols
Judge’s feedback: The team demonstrated some great engineering flair to hack apart and rebuild an improved low cost modular soil probe capable of monitoring soil moisture at increased distances. The team show good forward thinking, proposing a modular and extensible design which would make the probe highly flexible tool for use in multiple crops and with additional sensors
Soil health can be enhanced by smart irrigation but how can this scarce resource be used most effectively?
For Eco-Sense the focus was how to optimise microbial activity by controlling soil moisture. So they looked at ways to determine the ideal moisture content of soils in order to maximise microbial activity.
The team used Agrimetrics’ data for the east of England and to measure the impact on plant growth the sensor they used a bio-photovoltaic cell (developed at the University of Cambridge) which harnesses the electrical power produced as plants grow. The team is already a start up and they plan to expand their activities using the knowledge gained in the the hackathon.
Judges’ feedback: The team clearly understood the need to deploy their soils sensor tech to scale and suggested cross-subsidising the equipment cost to provide affordable tech to small holder farmers. Not only did they show good use of low cost technology but also suggested a novel and fairly mind-blowing power-source in the form of biovoltaic cells in which the crop itself powers the sensors.
The winner of the GROW agri-hackathon
The winning team of GROW 2019 was Alpaca Punch.
Simon Peverett comments: “Our team consisted of myself and Omar Gad, who work as software engineers at the same company. We were joined by John Castle, a business and communications expert and Zhiqi (Zak) Wang, a university student studying manufacturing and engineering. Before the event only I and Omar knew each other. We had a good mixture of skills in our team that complimented each other, and we quickly gelled as we worked together.
“For the challenge we spoke to farmers and specialists and focused on the problems with Pest Control and how their management with insecticide can directly impact biodiversity and indirectly impact soil quality. We discovered that by using Integrated Pest Management, predator species can be used to control pest populations.
“Our solution was to demonstrate the feasibility of using low cost computing, for example a Raspberry Pi, coupled with open source software, such as Open Computer VIsion (OpenCV) to build a cheap detector that could identify specific pests such as Chafer beetle or Pollen Beetle. Our presentation and demonstration were done entirely with a Raspberry Pi B+ to show exactly how versatile and in-expensive such systems are. We had a great time, and each of us gained a lot from the experience. “
Richard Perkins of WWF comments: “I hope that the bug detector that the winning team put together, and the other innovations, make it to widespread use and contribute to farmers restoring loads and loads of nature. If there is anything that I can do to make that happen I would be happy to help.”
A huge thank you to everyone who participated and supported the GROW agri-hackathon
Tech Pantry – to all those who supplied hardware which included: Raspberry Pis (3b+ and Zero), Arduino (Nano, Uno and Mega), Servo and Stepper motors, a multitude of sensors and switches, voltmeters and solder kits, as well as 3D printers (Ulitmaker 2+ and 3), RF generator, oscilloscope, Lora Hub and much more!
Data providers – Rothamsted Research, Agrimetrics, Wroot Weather, Prodata Weather Systems.
Hackathon hosting – Allia Future Business Centre.
Hackathon facilitators and supporters -Barclays Eagle Labs
Supporters – BASF, WWF-UK