Safer food, less waste, more efficient food production and better use of natural resources are just some of the goals inspiring the work of a new research group at the University of Lincoln, UK.
The Agri-Food Technology Research Group aims to develop new technological solutions for all stages of food production including cultivation, harvest, processing and packaging.
Agri-food is the largest industry in Lincolnshire and food security is also one of the major challenges identified by the UK Research Councils. Demand for food will grow by 40 per cent by 2030 and 70 per cent by 2050. The challenge is to meet this demand in ways that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, and in the face of global climate change.
Research in this area undertaken by Lincoln academics has already resulted in links with local, national and global agri-food industry obtaining more than £500,000 in government and industry support.
Group leader Professor Tom Duckett, from the School of Computer Science, said members would continue to work with industry in tackling challenges faced in the real world.
He said: “Agriculture and food production is not only a major part of our local industry – it’s also vital to the health and happiness of people everywhere. As a young person growing up in Lincolnshire, I worked in various different jobs in fields and food factories, where I learned that the human element of food production is also really important. This technology is not about replacing human workers, but about giving them new tools to help produce more and meet the challenges of feeding a growing population.
“In our previous research, we have developed new technologies such as sensory systems that enable robots to build 3D maps of their environments and trainable vision systems for inspecting food products. This new research group is about bringing these cutting edge technologies together and applying them to new areas of food production, especially through our links with the local and international agri-food industry. For instance, many of the sensing technologies that were developed originally for small-scale mobile robots as laboratory prototypes now have the potential to be applied in agricultural vehicles in the real world for improving food cultivation and harvesting.”
Together with colleague Dr Grzegorz Cielniak, Professor Duckett has already begun a 12-month feasibility study, funded by a £132,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board, to create a system of laser sensors to accurately control agricultural sprayers.
Another project being carried out with the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) and Frontier Agriculture aims to analyse field beans for the presence of specific pest and larval damage. The study will review, test and develop computer state of the art vision algorithms suitable for detecting, selecting and classifying the beans most effectively.
Other tasks include the creation of new multi-purpose imaging technology to undertake quality inspection tasks in the food industry; automatic identification of potato blemishes and improvements in the seal integrity of heat-sealed packaging.
More research and development work in the group is focussed at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) – the specialist campus of the University of Lincoln working with food manufacturing businesses. Work at the NCFM includes studies carried out for the Food Standards Agency, DEFRA and WRAP as well as projects for the centre’s partners and clients. The focus of the work is around food safety and shelf life extension as well as processing and packaging systems.
The Agri-Food Technology Research Group is keen to work with local, national and international businesses and organisations to solve problems relevant to them and their industry. They can be contacted by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org