Is the the end of the ag robot swarm ?

An academic agtech dream has died

I am personally sad that Small Robot Company has gone into liquidation. Personally sad because I invested in it but also because it is probably the end of an academic dream that friends and colleagues believed in passionately. The dream failed to make it to market for a number of practical reasons.

  • Finance
  • Minimum Tillage
  • Weeding
  • Harvesting

Finance. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Farming Today the founder of Small Robot Company blamed the Agtech financing climate in the UK and I would agree from my experience starting eCow, Milkalyser and VirtualVet there are few investors or funds willing to take long term high risk investments in UK agtech. Investors mostly want companies with proven products and sales. Any company developing hardware that needs to be tested and developed over a number of seasons is going to struggle. Even if the product works and sells the cost of scaling is immense. Investors love software start ups because testing is usually quite quick and upgrades can be cheaply sent out over air. There is plenty of evidence that the Silicon Valley model of funding does not work well in farm machinery. These are not fast moving consumer goods bought as fashion items.

Minimum Tillage. For years the concept of reducing the soil compaction associated with heavy machinery has proposed that fleets of light weight robots could replace the heavy machines needed for field operations. The Tom robot mapped pests and then returned for spot spraying. The concept was that the major time cost for human labour could be replaced by a few machines taken out to the fields that would quietly work away. However, I think the real problem of compaction came from the previous fashion for deep tillage which requires huge motive power and thus heavy machines. Minimum or even no till requires a completely different approach with use of tramlines and accurate GPS. If spraying is to done then 24 m passes on tramlines and lighter machines that could be automated rather reduce the argument for the swarm of small robots.

Weeding As we move away from spraying weeds towards steered blades, electrocution and lasers we reintroduce the need for power on the implement. My abiding memory of the wonderful laser weeders working rocket beds is the sound of the diesel generators needed to power the servers and lasers. These will not be powered by small machines in the near future. Blade weeders need traction and good electrical supply too for the imaging computers.

Harvesting The biggest machines we always see are always harvesters after all we planted kilograms of seed and expect to harvest tonnes of crop. Cereals and forage crops get harvested when soils are dry in summer when compaction is lower risk but the high value vegetable crops with big labour demands have to be brought in over often soaking soils so again we need power.

In my view the future of field robotics is to develop systems that allow farmers the flexibility of use of tractors and implements with automation tools that for routine field operations do not require a driver. I am working on remote control systems that can be used from off the seat but stop safely if humans are in danger around the machine. Only the largest farms can justify machines that can do limited operations.


Why Artificial Intelligence (AI) will not create robot tractors

Twenty years of incredible development have failed to replace humans as drivers.

Twenty years ago DARPA who sponsor advanced research in the USA ran a competition to develop a vehicle to save lives of the US military. This was hoped to lead to autonomous vehicles. This excellent book takes us through the exciting developments of the past 20 years of sensors and systems but we still have no autonomous vehicles on public roads. Exciting, and initially tech driven, the competitions in the Mojave desert are particularly well described. The first failed to find a vehicle that could complete the course but two years later several vehicles managed the 150 miles of rugged terrain. The action then moves to the even more dynamic environment of urban driving and the businesses that were created and failed to deliver a safe system to replace the human skill of driving. There is so much in this book of interest to engineers, drivers, business people and investors still looking for the secret sauce that will bring sensory intelligence to robots. Things that humans do with ease are difficult for robots and vice versa. This is Moravecs paradox explored with billions of dollars of investment money from Google, Uber, Ford, GM et al. and still there are no autonomous vehicles regularly on the road.

For me, with a Defra funded innovation project to develop safe working systems to stop tractors killing humans and animals this is a key text. The book maps out the development process that failed to constrain the operational design domain and demonstrates the hubris of some inventors one of whom ended up in prison for IP theft. The desire for a complete system prevented the development of the aftermarket of conversions of existing vehicles that could evolve autonomy. Whilst deep learning techniques of showing many tagged pictures of cats to a computer can teach it to recognise a cat, this has proved insufficient to learn the complexities of navigating a road without accidents.

For me this is welcome. I am disappointed with the displays of robotic tractor systems and there are many now appearing, they seem to have to have a narrow focus and few farms are big enough for a single purpose machine.

I want to keep the flexibility of the existing tractor fleet and provide a conversion kit that allows them to be used in many tasks, anything from feeding animals on a frosty morning or carrying tools and posts while fencing. I have defined a few problems where humans work with tractors and spend a lot of time jumping on an off and driving short distances.

#tractor #robot #farming #defra #innovateUK #horticulture #robothayes


Vegetables in a changing climate

Devon has a very mild climate with summer heat and winter chill moderated by the sea but even here we see the climate changing. This June it was so hot that my clay soil dried out to dust after a wet winter, temperatures in the polytunnel went over 50C. As for rain we seem to get showers so heavy that they smash plants and wash out any exposed soil.

I would love a greenhouse as the technology has advanced hugely and makes a perfect platform for robotic management even down to picking and packing vegetables but the capital costs are huge (say £20k for 100 sq m) and running costs subject to uncontrollable fuel cost variations.

So I need more flexible methods of controlling the exposure of plants to the elements at a reasonable cost. At the Venice Biennale I saw a very interesting exhibit of Taiwanese farm buildings evolved to manage their high value fruit and vegetable crops in semi tropical latitudes but with mountains that have cold and snowy conditions. They also get typhoons with very high winds and extreme rainfall.

This summer I used a tarpaulin over the polytunnel to reduce the solar exposure but this is a temporary and difficult to manage option. A polytunnel can of course be adapted with different covers and ventilation but it is hard to change the covering as we bury the sides in soil to stop the wind blowing the covers away.

Figure 1: Model of a fruit farm growing under a frame with an extendable shade/rain filter cover

The Taiwanese style is to create a rigid frame maybe 2.4 m (8’) above ground with tensile wire between the rigid frames that can support crops like tomatoes and beans and also provide a guide and support for covers that can be winched into position as required. I am going to try and experiment with these next season to understand the practicalities. We don’t get typhoons in Devon but we get a lot of wind and periodic heavy rain. I think I will use a mesh of plastic to allow rain to percolate and shade to stop severe burning.

a model of a vegetable plot cover by a permeable cover about 2.4 m above the crop

Robot Hayes allotments

I am renting out 100 sq m allotments on a gentle south facing slope of Pebblebeds soil on the west edge of Aylesbeare, Devon. The field has been a sheep run and hayfield for many years and not treated with chemicals. I bought it last year as place to develop new techniques in robotic horticulture and I have created 48 plots that I rent out on allotment style leases, many are still available at £60 a year (incl VAT). I have planted shelter belts and dug water holding ponds around the perimeter which will provide a wild life zone and shelter belts in due course. My aim is to create a community food resource over the years. This winter I will plant more trees including some exotic fruits and nuts as our weather is changing to hotter and wetter conditions and we need to adapt. Contact me if you are interested. Instagram @robothayes linkedin.com/in/tobymottramdigitalagritech

  • Pebblebeds soil
  • south facing slope
  • Mains water
  • Main road access and parking off A3052
  • Close to Nine Oaks bus stop (9,9A)
  • One robot installed in polytunnel, another in development
  • what3words: perplexed.picture.dusters
Address and map

Food shortages caused by flooding

trucks in floods
Photo by Jéan Béller on Unsplash

The globalised trading network that grew up with the rise of China and the collapse of the Soviet Empire has massively changed where food and other goods are produced in relation to their markets. However, the fragility of this network was brought home during the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftershocks. For my business two packages shipped in March 2020 were stuck in airports and customs facilities for months causing a loss of major customers. Similarly, sudden changes in politics such as Brexit and the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctioning of criminal gangs led to major disruptions to fresh food trade in UK and the Black Sea trade in grains to Africa and the Middle East. These political driven disruptions will be overcome but a more fundamental long term threat is disruption to food supply due to climate change.

In 2023 there have been major storms and floods that have damaged the transport infrastructure in numerous places. Countries around the world have seen major floods with smashed bridges, washed out roads and huge damage to croplands in China, Greece, Libya, Slovenia to name a few (www.floodlist.com) . Climate change is bringing more intense rainstorms driven by a more dynamic atmospheric hydrological cycle. These lead to flash floods particularly in urban areas where water cannot be absorbed by non-porous surfaces. The world’s most productive land is often situated in riverine and coastal littorals that are at greater risk than ever of flooding.

The disruption to fresh food supply is particularly a risk as the products are perishable and need to be delivered within a minimum few days of harvest via a cold chain network. A disruption of a few days is a serious matter and thus it will become more important to develop short supply chains to reduce the risk of disruption. This is a strong argument for local peri-urban horticulture.


Can robots save UK horticulture ?

Growing food was for thousands of years, and in much of the world still is, a set of backbreaking monotonous but skilled tasks. It was done by humans in all weathers from scorching to freezing from burning dry to continuously coal and soaked. It was largely staffed by unfree people serfs, slaves, peons, share croppers. Since people found that they could have a better life in the cities there has been a continuous migration which has driven agricultural technology for 250 years. The arrival of mobile power sources usually fossil fuelled allowed machines driven by a human to become huge and efficient in the use of labour. There was still a huge need for labour harvesting vegetables and picking fruit. The labour crisis is now so serious in UK that farms are ceasing production of some crops and even if migration restrictions are lifted the steady rise in living standards around the world means the traditional sources of labour are disappearing.

Two major advances are needed for robotic harvesting one is identifying the item you want to pick or cut and the other is to have a tool that can pick up the produce gently. Other parts of the system exist such as precision location which has been around for years and transporting and packing the fresh produce.

In this video you can see asparagus tips being picked, image processing detects the mature shoots and then a soft picker descends and holds the stem while a knife cuts it free.

Agrobot a Spanish strawberry harvester

And here you can see the types of new machines. The first observation is that this is great and complex technology and will take years to hone and improve as the test and development time is limited each season and so years may pass before all issues have been identified and fixed. Production runs are small and so the cost of producing and supporting these robots is going to be high for a while yet.


Invasion of the non-Hollywood Robots

A great show of the latest field robots in 2022

In a spirit of curiosity and in need of an adventure after the confinements of the last two years I took flight to California for a bit of October sunshine to visit FIRAUSA2022 to see the latest display of Californian Agricultural Robotics. Last year I managed to navigate Covid restrictions to visit FIRA2021 in Toulouse and my blog report of that meeting is here.

FIRA USA 2022 was held in Fresno a modern city of half a million at the Southern end of Central Valley region of California which is one of the great growing areas of the world where with irrigation water from the mountains pretty much anything can be grown. At the airport one is greeted with Welcome to Fresno, agricultural capital of the world.

The meeting was enjoyed by 1000 + delegates in a three day mix of R&D results, commercial interactions and most interestingly field demonstrations in salad crops and vineyards.

Figure 1: The design of full autonomous tractors completely reshapes the layout. They are basically a frame with wheels at each corner, a power source, sensors and a computer. This Naio machine has front mid and rear tool bars on hydraulic hitches.

Being California there was huge enthusiasm to invest in the new wave of technology based on autonomous robotics, image processing and precision navigation. I think the investment crowd may have been a little disappointed as various company founders expressed views that suggested company growth should be organic and that VC money was not always appropriate as rapid scaling of agritechnology and early exits were unlikely.

The main interest was in systems that address the key problem in horticulture and viticulture of labour shortage. Even Mexican growers present were complaining that there is a labour shortage there. So weeding by hoes, spot spraying or lasers were the most viewed systems along with sub systems suppliers for navigation, wifi charging or image processing etc,

Most of the blade weeders were relatively simple, agitating a blade to swipe a weed identified by image processing as not the crop. One company FarmWise had build a full autonomous vehicle to weed which begs the question why not just mount it on a tractor and apply navigation and autoturn controls such as those offered by several manufacturers now.

Figure 2: interplant and interrow weeding just has to identify a plant as not the crop to then chop its roots with a blade. The red circles are weeds left to dry out in the sunshine of California

To me all the blade weeders looked primitive in comparison to the Garford Robocrop invented by Nick Tillet and Tony Hague 20 years ago and this was also pointed out by one of the scientific speakers.

More exciting was the laser weeder that could operate in beds of very small seedlings as it could burn out out weeds with pinpoint accuracy.

There were a lot of interesting panel discussions and science presentations and one I caught said that blade weeders were over 90% effective weeding between lettuce plants in rows although timing is critical. In Arugula (Rocket in UK) where plants are grown in beds timing is even more critical and there a laser weeder came out very well. You can see it working in the video . I walked down the bed after the machine finished and saw only two weeds in 100 metres. Both were emerging contiguous to the Rocket seedling which would need a finger weeding if a human was doing it.

There was a lot of attention on viticulture robots mostly for spraying which is obviously a major operation. See the video for a view of some of them. My favourite machine is the Swarmfarm system which was not able to make the journey from Australia where a number of them are busy. They are basically a metal frame, a diesel power source, navigation and autosteer. The video demonstration is well worth watching. I spoke to Andrew Bates the founder and he said he has a couple coming to UK soon.

There was considerable discussion about whether legislation will hamper the deployment of autonomous robots on farms. No-one wants a farm worker or child hurt by a robot although scaring off ramblers and crop circlers might be acceptable.

The Californian equivalent of HSE have recently judged that fully autonomous tractors must be supervised by a human and this has dealt a major blow to progress on autonomy.

This maybe a hurdle we need to jump in the UK fairly soon as autonomous tractors are working at a number of farms in test conditions.


Autonomous Robots Moving Fast

The FIRA industry conference and show series is focused on autonomous field machines which have become of huge interest given labour shortages particularly in high value vegetable and fruit crops. This year’s show was held at the Diagora conference centre near Toulouse, France between 7-9 th December 2021 in a mix of face to face meetings and online presentations from across the world. The hybrid format worked well as live streaming is now fairly robust and there was excellent studio management so that even questioners appeared on screen live. In fact I found the video presentations easier to follow back in my hotel room chromecast to a wide screen TV rather than in the conference rooms where visual quality was sometimes poor and distant text was sometimes unreadable.

I had been hoping for genuine live demonstrations but every company resorted to video which of course is immune from real world problems. The robots move up and down rows on video across flat fields.

The biggest company in terms of sales appears to be Naio whilst the longest development cycle seems to be AgroIntelli’s Robotti which grew out of a Kongskilde project and is now in early sales mode. There was a great demonstration of robust simplicity from Swarmfarm in Australia with 20+ machines in the field. The full list of exhibitors is available on the website.

A fully loaded Robotti from Denmark with diesel power packs

The basic format of autonomous field robots is of a steel frame with an independently driven and steered wheel at each corner. A mast on the frame gives elevation to cameras and antennas, Sensors are mounted around the frame for collision detection and data recording. Most machines have one or more tool bars and a 3 point linkage to mount third party implements such as hoes, seeders and even harvesting units.

An early stripped down prototype shows the essentials , frame, wheels, toolbar, GPS tower

Buses for power (electric and hydraulic) and data distribution are a key element attached to the frames. Machines are sized to standard widths for viticulture or horticultural implements. It was claimed that machine weights were 10% of conventional tractor and implement outfits. The system concept is ideal for no till or minimal till rotations. They do not have the power and weight for traditional ploughing and cultivating and they do not cause soil compaction either except in the tramlines. Given the need to reduce energy use and to sequester carbon in soils the autonomous systems offer huge advantages as well reducing the labour cost.

Most machines used either an off the shelf diesel engine powering hydraulic drive or a hybrid system using a small diesel engine to charge batteries and using electric drives. There was an interesting discussion about electric versus diesel versus hydrogen or fuel cell, The pragmatic solution is to use a modular approach that can be adapted as new power source technologies appear. A radical departure was the demonstration of a wireless charging station for batteries by Wiferion. The robot can drive to a shared station and wirelessly charge up with 93% of the power available from the associated power supply (mains, wind or solar + battery). This removes the need to fill up with diesel or plug in a power supply.

Most of the bigger machines had three point linkages so that third party implements can be fitted, this is the back end of a Sitia viticulture machine

One limitation of the robots is that they cannot move from field to field on public roads under robot control due to the same legislation that controls autonomous cars and trucks. This is not a major issue for large farms within a ring fence with internal paths but something to be addressed to enable machine flexibility and sharing.

The most popular and simple application is spot spraying or weeding with bolt on modules that use image capture of weed species and deploy the chemical or mechanical knockout system according to the image and location of target. The difficulties and potential for developing better and faster systems of image capture was well described by Robovision who are specialists in capturing human expertise in visual tasks into software.

A little further from commercialization were robot harvesters and video was shown of systems picking strawberries, asparagus, and cauliflowers in open field conditions. These machines were in only their first season of operation so this is a space to watch for developments. Mishandling of the crop was held as the potential risk for adoption as any damage reduces shelf life and quality and thus price. Two machines in the USA (Harvest Croo and Advanced Farm) were picking the very delicate crop of strawberries and there a major part of the problem is post picking handling and transport. The Harvest Croo machine used image processing, multiple robot grapples and a liquid transport system to move and pack the fruit.

It was stated several times that mechanised field harvesting can improve product quality by removing human contamination of the crop (no exposure to salmonella or covid from pickers) and also by grading the fruit in the field the costs and difficulty of human labour in the packing house could be significantly reduced. Naturally the heavier loads of harvesting need a transport system that does not cause soil compaction to carry produce off the field.

Various pricing mechanisms for the technology were mentioned from outright purchase, leasing and payment by materials harvested (which could then compete directly with the human cost of harvesting). Some of the systems developed have been by a partnership between producers identifying the problem and the start up tech developers. As there is virtually no long term operating experience repair cycles and fault detection were barely discussed except as a legal risk. Only one farmer mentioned the lack of any checking for the real things that happen such as bearing failures causing misaligned weeding disks etc.

A stripped down MuddyMachine prototype has been picking asparagus after only one year in development

Although high value crops have significant niche markets which are under severe stress due to low labour availability from migration restrictions and a loss of traditional recruitment patterns in the countryside, they do not amount to scales that will massively reduce cost of production. While tractors sell in hundreds of thousands of units per year the take up of specialist autonomous platforms is likely to be in hundreds per year for the next few years until issues such as cost of use, serviceability, dealership response times have been resolved. There will still be a need for the flexible farm tractor for many years to come.


This could N badly

Last week I visited North West Scotland on a short holiday. It is a land of stunning open spaces, glaciated volcanic lumps and mountains interspersed with wide valleys, green and lush at this time of year. The green vegetation is not grass though, but a huge mix of species of plants that like the wet acid soil conditions and mild climate. There are a few sheep farms, but everywhere, even in the high hills there are ruined farms, crofts and shielings (seasonal settlements for grazing animals). The population used to be much greater, before the industrial period with its clearances and emigration. The whole area is a model for what will happen as smallholders around the globe abandon their plots and move into cities for a “better” life. This is the reality of rewilding, it has been going on a long time in the Highlands.

A wide Highland valley with a white crofthouse in the distance, low cloud covers the hills, 
Copyright Antoine Fabre @antoinefbr
Highland Valleys are empty of people and livestock where once were many villages. Image: Antoine Fabre

Northern Latitudes hold a huge potential for the next phase of agriculture. There are huge reserves of carbon and nitrogen in the peaty soil under the vegetation. As the planet warms up there is a risk that these soils and the huge tundra areas of Canada and Russia will release even more methane and Nitrous Oxide than the sparse animals that graze there.

In the Bronze Age 5-6000 years ago much of upland Britain was farmed, as shown by the settlement ruins and field boundaries on top of Dartmoor and Exmoor. The village people on Skara Brae, Orkney at 590 North grew cereals. The reason was the climate was +20C warmer than the twentieth century. It is predicted that we will have accidentally achieved a similar or warmer climate within a few decades unless we find a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time we expect to lose arable land to climate change and urbanisation further South. The growing area is moving North with climate change. If we try breaking new ground in the traditional way with the plough it would be a disaster as it would release the bound up carbon and nitrogen as methane and nitrous oxide, further exacerbating the greenhouse gas effect. It would also cause soil erosion and biodiversity loss.

We need an alternative way to use the soil resource for food production that does not disturb the deep soil. How about draining and grazing it ? This would almost certainly have been how the Bronze Age settlers would have started. Once the sward had been eaten or burnt back they would have been able to use simple draft animals (probably human) to drag an implement across to scratch the surface and sow some saved seeds. They would have had to weed the crop by hand as early ploughs did not bury the surface trash well if at all.

If that sounds familiar it is because it is min-till without weedkiller and modern plant varieties. It was subsistence farming, probably in parallel with hunter gathering. The labour must have been back breaking but if the alternative was starvation it would get done.

We can now use the new technologies of robotic tractors with shallow tools to till and weed much as humans used to do. We can dispense with heavy tractors causing soil compaction and use lightweight autonomous tool bars to continuously patrol the fields disrupting the weeds. The same robots could be used to distribute small amounts of fertiliser at appropriate moments in the growth cycle and remove weeds without chemicals. Appropriate moments would be based on plant needs and weather status determined by web connected algorithms. Applying fertiliser when rain is not predicted could have a major impact. Dry soil emits little nitrous oxide which is a major greenhouse gas. Emissions are growing rapidly according to the latest IPCC report as farmers around the world increasingly use artificial N fertiliser to increase yields of crops. Even more serious is the pollution of river water leading to dead ocean zones which also emit huge amounts of N2O.

Weeding robot and humans in a row crop
Which would you prefer ? Hand rowing, boring back aching or an autonomous weeder that works continuously ? Image: Naio

We need cover crops and rotational grazing to suppress weeds and restore fertility without exposing the soil to erosion. The question arises what do you do with all the grass and clover ? Maybe feed it to livestock ?

Switching the world to a lower meat diet might reduce methane emissions but it will lead to more N pollution and that could have an even more disastrous effect than we have currently. This could N badly.


Robots on the Strawberry Highway

It was very good to wake up on Sunday to hear a programme about tests of robots to track up and down rows of hydroponic strawberries killing off powdery mildew with UV light, no pesticides needed.

Red strawberries on a plant

Click here https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000ydnb

I have said for years that agricultural robotics in the UK needs to focus on the high value enterprises where labour is in short supply that is dairy, fruit and vegetables and that is what was described. The robots are not there to replace the skilled labour of picking the fruit but to do the routine task to kill off powdery mildew which they do with UV light.

The farm employs hundreds of people and so ensuring that the robots operate safely was a key element in the design. The next step is to conduct cost benefit analysis of these systems in a business with low margins it may still be


Beer without Fear

Beer without Fear in Ukraine

Beer without Fear. Travel in the time of Covid from poorly governed Britain

I have recently travelled to the Ukraine for medical and dental treatment as most of the routine procedures that I used to have from the NHS have been denied to me. Has anyone tried to use the NHS app lately to get a checkup ? Unless you have a previously diagnosed condition you might as well expire and die trying to access the care needed to stay healthy. If you want treatment, pretend to be ill, if you cannot find physical symptoms then you can now say you suffer from “mental health” problems which will get you pills. All power to the drugs companies.

Cossack Dancers in Odessa at a ceremony welcoming EU day

So I went to Ukraine to get a couple of health problems diagnosed and treated and to get dental treatment. I now have Xrays and a treatment plan for my knee which 20 years ago began developing arthritis following a goat related industrial accident. And a treatment for a deep burn on my forearm due to a domestic accident trying to cook during a period of single life. Do you know that domestic ovens are not designed for persons over 1.8 m in height (aka men). I was able to get a proper tooth cleanup, last year I had to pay hundreds of pounds for serious peridontal work due to lack of maintenance.

Let me just state up front that I am not in denial about the seriousness of the disease. I believe Covid-19 to be a serious viral condition caused by a mutating bat/pig interaction which largely spreads through aerosolised breath particles. It is not particularly lethal but generates enough patients with co-morbidities needing hospital treatment to overwhelm most health services. With 20 years of co-working at the BBSRC Institute for Animal Health and having studied Applied Biology at MSc level I have a good grasp of the science and the issues involved in vaccine programs for animals of which humans are a subset.

But to access routine health treatment in Ukraine I had to get myself tested for Covid before departure and pay a monopoly provider to get tested on my return and self-isolate despite being vaccinated. I was tested for free as part of my treatment at a former Soviet sanatorium in the foothills of the Carpathians in Ukraine. The mandatory tests cost us over two hundreds pounds each in total, the most expensive being the tests mandated to a monopoly of CTM by the Scottish government (twice the price of tests in England). In fact the largest cost of travel was the testing. I understand the need for this but there are huge flaws in the system.

The test certificate is checked by a busy boarding clerk who looks at a piece of paper to see name and negative test and then waves you through to board the plane. The Expresstest at Edinburgh produces a nice .pdf without a QR code. Print it yourself and hope the ink doesn’t smudge. At Heathrow on the way out this was the least important document they check. On the way back through Borispol airport Kiev I had a certificate from the Universum clinic with a QR code which includes the URL of the data output of the Quiagen machine. But no-one scans that to automatically cross-check the data. I suspect that, particularly in the corrupt Ukraine, many of the certificates are fake. A huge opportunity to log and track data about individuals with the disease is being missed, which brings us to the interesting issues of how politics is interacting with policy.

I have been reading Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy and experiencing that mix of confusion and revulsion that many of us feel about the current governance of the UK. Daily we hear that the close advisers of our prime minister do not think he is up to the job and that the health minister is a serial liar. Our right wing nationalistic governments are conflicted. They want to declare our freedom from government controls whilst at the same time imposing the most draconian rhetoric about the need to enforce national boundaries and show the power of the state. Then they give us confusing messages about advice on travel and the law. Boris plays the liberal internationalist (his Dad has a house in Greece so its OK to travel to ones foreign property) who wants to set us free but appoints a Home Secretary who has taken the hostile environment policy of Theresa May to new levels of nastiness. The Border Controls on arrival in Edinburgh took as long as those of the USA for this returning citizen with two persons at each desk , checking each others work I guess.

The mismatch of rhetoric and action is shocking, there is a “woke” desire not to scapegoat Asian minorities for not getting vaccinated but then list Leicester, Bradford, Bolton, Burnley and South Glasgow as hotspots as if we don’t know our own countries Asian ghettoes. And then they keep flight arrivals open from India and have people arriving from Red list countries queue up at Heathrow with those from green list countries. The media repeat government statements uncritically for example quoting Nicola Sturgeon telling us not to travel to Bolton, an edict that has no validity in law even if it could be enforced at non-existent border controls.

Scottish government says it is against the law to visit a few parts of England no-one wants to go to any way. But it has no power to enforce or to prosecute this non-existent law. Are there roadblocks on the A1 where coppers ask if you have visited Bradford ? It is all fantasy. Meanwhile the BBC and others promote a culture of fear and stay at home which is largely unnecessary and has clearly scared huge numbers of people. The sort of people who walk along windy coast paths in Hazmat gear and who jump into the sea at the approach of a healthy looking jogger.

Politics and the cultural mindset also impose their own restrictions. On Austrian airlines they insisted that we buy and wear masks that conform to an ISO standard but efficiently serve you with drinks which mean you only wear it for a few minutes in the flight. We were told at Heathrow that we we would not be able to leave the Vienna airport terminal while we waited overnight for our connecting flight to Lviv but when we arrived we were ushered out of the terminal without any questions and stayed at the comfortable hotel opposite the terminal.

The UK now has some of the lowest Covid case rates in the Western world but imposes severe restrictions on how its previously free citizens live and travel. Ukraine (a similarly low incidence place) a country previously enslaved by Russian/Soviet/Nazi empires allows a free choice to wear a mask except in enclosed spaces and you can go to the ballet, drink in a bar and travel abroad . It was just pleasant to walk around without that end of days zombie atmosphere our deserted high streets have had for a year. To go into a pub and have a meal and beer without fear of censure is just such fun.

It is easy for the nutters on the internet to see this whole episode in our communal lives as a conspiracy of a supreme intelligence plotting the downfall of humanity into an end of days scenario. It is more like a conspiracy of dunces. Countries on a down cycle of quality government such as the UK where the press and politicians attack the institutions of state, promote stupidity (statutes for statues, unlimited flights from red zone countries, protect the overweight from the consequences of gluttony, splitting up the UK with their daft Brexit deal). Countries where things are on an upswing such as Ukraine trying to control corruption and fight the Russian land grab tend to do things better. That is a sad reflection on our once well governed country.

The Digital Tractor

I recently gave a talk about tractors and robots to the #Landwards Conference of #IagrE

There is a lot of investment and hype going into robotic field machines very often to do specialist tasks in high value crops. The “robots” can generally do one or two specialist jobs which is fine if you have hundreds of acres on which to recoup the investment . I think a better option is to convert our existing tractors to be switchable between a driverless mode and manual control. Tractors are extremely versatile machines capable of many tasks and drivers are similarly versatile and given that new robots come with a price tag in six figures and a secondhand tractor has a much lower book value we should be consolidating designs for conversion.

In parallel we need to develop safe working practices into the design of the sensors with which digital tractors must be equipped. In horticulture many processes such as weeding and harvesting still rely on skilled manual workers in close proximity to moving machinery. We need to protect workers from harm quite apart from any delays and holdups dealing with iincidents. So the tractor should be building a digital record of its operations which will include video using the sort of technology now common in dashcams. The data can then be used to train new teams.


Commercialise your inventions

This is a chapter from a book Practical Precision Livestock Farming published by Wageneingen in 2022 in which I wrote about my experience of trying to commercialise my inventions both as a government scientist and commercial entrepreneur.

I describe four models for commercialisation and my experience with each

1: License the technology to an established company

2: Open source intellectual property

3 Institutions can create a spin-out

4: Start-up your own development company

  1. Introduction

The world economy and much of our daily lives is dominated by tech developed by companies (Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Google, ARM, Amazon) that were founded in garages by enthusiastic amateurs within the career span of this author. These are companies that scaled to prominence quickly through internet distribution of software and electronic devices. The teleological explanation is that their growth was inevitable because of the brilliance of the idea and how they monetised that idea in their offering to the customer. But for every company that is a success on a large scale there will have been many small scale failures often with equally brilliant ideas. Ninety percent of all start-ups do not last a year or even produce a minimum viable product (MVP). In addition, there are many successes that scale up rapidly to huge valuations but wither and die, as either they bet on a particular technology platform and are overtaken by events. Some very large tech companies have been prominent for a few years and then withered away (AltaVista, MySpace, MapQuest, Netscape, Palm Pilot, Blackberry). The world of agritech startups is unlikely to nurture the huge scaling that seems inevitable from looking at the history of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Zoom and their like. But that scaling has created an expectation that tech companies are a guarantee of future wealth for the investora and founders. This is sadly not the case.

In the 1970s I was a naïve hippy and self sufficient farmer wannabe. There was a serious back to the land movement of young people in those days who had been inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Club of Rome report about how pollution was killing the natural resilience of ecosystems and that we were running out of reseources. Self sufficient farming in the old style was all the rage with an emphasis or organic as the answer to all problems. I took myself off to Galloway in SouthWest Scotland where the farming was less mechanised to learn the skills of old style farming that I thought I needed to be a self sufficient peasant. All those old skills that change with the seasons on a mixed farm growing forage crops for animals and selling milk and livestock are brilliantly described by James Rebanks in English Pastoral (2020). So I learnt to drive a tractor and plough (badly), sowing, reaping and binding. I preferred the livestock skills, lambing hill sheep, shearing sheep, calving cows and milking dairy cows in a warm byre. Years later when I entered the world of research and development the muscle memory of those skills stood me in good stead. Just knowing how much physically embedded knowledge is built into the experienced stockperson was very useful when it came to assessing the utility of yet another clever idea dreamt up in an academic environment.

The other thing I learnt was the sheer arduousness of physical labour in farming even in the semi-mechanised agriculture of the 1970s and eighties. I could see the steady disappearance of labour as people who had grown up as “farm servants” aged and retired. Throughout Europe people have largely rejected the hard life of a self-sufficient peasant and prefer to buy food grown and packed elsewhere on farms of increasing size and technical sophistication. Supermarket shelves are always full with packets of tempting looking meals which are so much quicker and easier to cook than garden vegetables and local produce. That trend seems to be spreading throughout the world with an accompanying demographic shift reducing the number of humans available to work on farms. Every so often keen idealistic people go back to the land but they rarely sustain the enthusiasm for more that a couple of seasons of hobby food production and the economic viability of small scale organic farming is limited unless sustained by a retail operation.

At the end of the seventies I moved with my young family back to my home area in South West England and took to contract milking cows, as that gave me a good income from which I could save towards buying and renting out property to participate in the house price inflation that enriched property owners through the 1980s. It also gave me flexible time to study. I realised that the hard physical labour in farming had to be replaced by automation and overcame my early neglect of education by studying for a degree with the Open University which was largely a set of engineering courses with a couple of modules in agriculture. After graduating I briefly lectured in agriculture in Cornwall before moving to Silsoe College to undertake a Masters Degree in Agricultural Machinery Engineering. I had got a taste for the research life and went on to do a staff registered PhD in the automation of milking.

In 1989 my wife and I were able to buy our own place – a ruined pig farm with hardly any land but planning permission for a temporary mobile home. Over a number of years we built up a successful goat farm selling milk to a creamery making specialist cheese. Every weekend I was milking goats, trimming feet and building more space for the growing herd. Eventually we showed it was a viable business and we were able to get permission and build our dream house. At that stage with our children leaving home we were confronted with the challenge of the empty nest and a lack of successors wanting to take on the legacy of farming. I meet a lot of reluctant farmers who have taken over the family farm out of a sense of family duty. Some never really get to run the farm as Dad is keeping an eye on things and controlling the operations. We decided to sell the farm and I took up a position as a Principal Scientific Officer at Silsoe in 1999.

In parallel I was working for Silsoe Research Institute as project leader in automation of milking systems and I led the team that built the UK’s first robotic milking system barn at Cheseridge Farm, Institute for Animal Health to house the technology developed by Mike Street and his team. This robot was later commercialised as the de Laval VMS which celebrated its 20th year on the market in 2017. When we started the project we made a list of 26 reasons why a robot might not successfully milk a cow and steadily worked through an experimental program to show that things like cow behaviour, morphology, cleanliness and temperament would not be a barrier to robotic milking and so it proved. It became very clear that cows do not volunteer to be milked they volunteer to eat and all robotic milking systems are defined by some form of traffic management so that as cows go through their day looking for snacks they have to pass through a station where they are usually fed.

In the 1990’s life in agricultural research and development in the UK was a struggle with the continuous need to find new sources of money. Following the free market ideology of Margaret Thatcher, governments withdrew from supporting experimental husbandry farms and practical farm research. The argument ran that as a rich country that made its money in manufacturing and financial services, the UK could purchase food on the world market and that supporting agriculture was for social benefit rather than food production. The practical development work of new systems of farming was deemed to be the role of industry as it was “near market”. The Agriculture and Food Research Council was renamed Biological and Biological Sciences Research Council, funding was to be aimed at “pure research” measured by papers in prestigious scientific journals rather than demonstrable improvements in farming techniques. This policy was also backed by a desire to patent our “blue-sky” inventions and licence the IP to any company willing to pay the price for it. This policy gained some credibility when in 1995 the government agency responsible (British Technology Group PLC) for our patent portfolio in the robotic milking sector announced the development deal between de Laval and Silsoe Research Institute to commercialise the robotic milking portfolio as the VMS system which has been on sale since 1997. Which leads me to my first commercialisation project.

  1. Model 1: License the technology to an established company

The primary model of technology development is that clever academics invent things, patents are filed and the institution then sells the patent portfolio to a company to a company to take it to market.

However the model of academic institutions licensing IP to third parties has serious flaws which were exposed as events later proved in the case of robotic milking.

The first flaw is that to defend a portfolio one needs to be able to maintain continuous surveillance of the field of invention. One needs to be able to comment on the patent filings made by the institution and more importantly identify infringements in the competitive filings made by others. The patent attorneys need the advice of the inventors to critically assess the key features to be protected from a wish list that might be put into the first filing. It is common practice to draft vague first filings that describe the problem to be solved and all the many ways in which it might be solved. After one year you add or edit the patent claims to focus on the novel and protectable claims, sometimes in response to the patent search by the assessors. As the project develops one or more of the key features gets developed as the solution, the problem comes if one finds a different way of solving the problem which was not mentioned in the first filing. Patenting is seen as similar in value to writing scientific papers but in practice they are completely different documents with completely different purposes. The patenting process takes several years during which the original filing will have acquired “claims” emphasising the key features and sometimes “divisionals” expanding on something from the original. The patent search needs to be commented on, occasionally the patent office find documents which they rate as having an impact on the invention, these all have to be dealt with for years. In addition, competitive filings will keep appearing to cover gaps which the prior art has missed. Without a team working on new developments it is hard to keep knowledge up to date.

The typical academic research programme lasts three to five years, even before the end of which, the team with their embedded expertise in the field start looking for other projects to engage their intellects and develop their careers. There is no guarantee of continuity of a team with the unwritten domain knowledge with which to respond to claims and counterclaims in a patent battle.

The two main competitors in robotic milking filed maybe 150 patents relevant in the field and spent a great deal of money and time before a single robot had been sold. Each one needed to be assessed and commented on but most of the Silsoe team had found other jobs encouraged by the continuing reduction in government support for agricultural engineering research.

BTG had gained a reputation for aggressively defending its IP portfolio and certainly invested heavily in paying patent attorneys to file our inventions. They used to come regularly and ask what the latest ideas were to patent. As a privatised company BTG had to take commercial decisions and in the late 1990s it decided not to sustain activity in agricultural engineering and abandoned any attempt to fight for the licence income that could have derived from the patent portfolio we had established.

Technology developments take decades to come to fruition but Research Institutions have not proved stable over long periods in the UK as they have had to adapt to constantly changing demands of the politics of managing decline from an Imperial past. The latest example being Brexit which is destroying many academic collaborations built up through European funding programs.

  1. Model 2: Open source intellectual property

Academic institutions funded by endowment or government programmes do have a certain luxury of being able to set long term objectives. Some of these are strategic for example, in keeping a capability to conduct research in a strategic area such as climate change or vaccine development. The academic model is based on combining research and teaching. Historically a learned scholar published and taught and drew a coterie of research students around him or her. Scholars banded together into colleges and began to provide intellectual support to powerful person and institutions. During the twentieth century the university became formalised and massively expanded and an emphasis was placed on publishing papers preferably in the most prestigious journals. Prestige generally goes with the pure sciences focused on theoretical studies sometimes backed by experimental data. The constant dilemma between the ability to teach and the ability to publish papers is not one to concern us here.

When I first joined the Silsoe Research Institute in 1989 my head of division pointed out to me the criteria for advancement up the pay scale was based on the numbers of papers I would publish. At the grade I was appointed to I should produce two refereed papers a year and progress to the next grade within five years. Similar criteria exist all over the academic world. The aim was quantity rather than quality as there were few measures of quality although impact factors based on readership and prestige began to creep in. Gaming the scoring system was an inevitability especially when institutional funding became related to papers written and there was even a transfer value for staff who moved between institutions. However, papers in areas where there was a potential for commercial exploitation could be embargoed until patents and other IP had been protected. Much of the work to develop robotic milking was being comprehensively patented by the BTG group and the expense did not accrue to the Institute itself.

However, after about 1997 BTG decided that agricultural innovation was not to be a major commercial benefit and later explicitly focused on the life sciences and medical research. In future, the costs of filing and protecting patents was to be the responsibility of the Institute and in this respect was to resemble academic institutions such MIT, Stanford and Cambridge and Imperial College. After the sale of the robotic milking portfolio to de Laval I had undertaken commissions for our Ministry of Agriculture to begin to identify those aspects of dairy cow health and fertility that were essential to enable robotic and highly automated systems to match the performance of good husbandry. There was no budget for filing patents and I heard it expressed that work funded by the government was for the public good wherever that was expressed. This was a continuation of a long standing British tendency to invent things and then fail to commercialise the invention. So we embarked on a policy of publishing all our work which enabled us to advance our careers and broadcast all our secrets.

It worked well until the money ran out. For example, I published my work to develop inline methods of monitoring metabolic disease and fertility parameters (Mottram, 2000) and later saw this work developed by others with a more commercial mind set. At that stage our funding model for science was being turned upside down with the reforming of the Agricultural Food Research Council as the Biological and BioScience Research Council (BBSRC). I had personally decided to focus on monitoring anaimal health and this change did lead to some useful collaborative projects with Universities. However, the change also reduced the funding for what was seen as near market research as the governing council was dominated b academics who had made their careers in fundamental research. The dirty business of making amazing scientific breakthroughs actually work in field conditions was definitely not a priority. The mindset was that of the magic bullet, genetic modification to breed better plants and animals, amazing biochemical treatments that would prevent pests and diseases. At the same time funding from the Ministry was being withdrawn from practical agriculture and replaced by levy board funding. The levy boards were generally chaired by older farmers whose mindset did not really focus of the future. In one shocking incident millions of dairy research funding was re-allocated to funding generic milk advertising. This meant that on the one hand we had funding bodies that saw success as being scientific papers and on the other by farmers who thought we had plenty of technology and just needed to use it. By 2005 it became obvious that the Research Council saw no future for agricultural engineering research in the UK and looked for ways to dispose of the assets which led to the dispersal of the institution teams to various universities. A few of us chose the alternative which was to work in industry and even to commercialise inventions that had potential markets.

A classic problem for genuine conceptual inventiveness is that it may be difficult to patent an original as it describes something that cannot yet be implemented. A classic example is the paper published in 1945 by the sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke that proposed that geostationary satellites could provide global wireless communication. This was at a time when no rockets existed capable of putting an vehicle into a low orbit let alone a geostationary position and the invention of the transistor that has made small lightweight radio systems possible was still in the future. If Clarke had been allowed to patent the idea it would have had no financial value for another fifty years until commercial launches of satellite communications began. Patents expire after twenty years.

Even when the breakthrough is visible and patented, most development programs will eat up years of the patent filing and this is particularly the case in the biosciences where any product that can be used in animals and humans may need extensive testing and validation. Most pharmaceutical products get only a short period before going out of patent. And worse still the details of the invention need to be disclosed in the patent, testing and validation so there can be no reliance on secrecy. Deciding when to apply for a patent is a critical decision that has to take into account what the competition is likely to be doing, how easy it will be to copy and how long it will take to get it to market. Getting it wrong can have consequences years and decades after the event.

One major benefit of open publishing is that it does prevent others from patenting one’s ideas although it is sometimes important to ensure that patent assessors are aware of the prior art. That is easier in the internet age but search terms can be misleading. One tactic we have used in my companies is to draft and file patent applications which is relatively low cost (£130 in the UK) and see whether the patent assessors find any prior art. The patent can then be allowed to lapse at no further cost, allowing anyone to use the idea but no one can prevent others from developing it further. Sometimes the key patent is in a feature that makes for a simpler, cheaper device. Others then have to find another way of solving the problem.

This method might be called open source intellectual property.

  1. Model 3 Institutions can create a spin-out

A fashionable idea in academic institutions is to encourage staff members with potentially commercial ideas to found companies and licence the IP generated by the academic research to the start-up or spin-out company. There are some very successful examples of this (BioVex, a University College London spin-off, was sold to Amgen, for up to US$1 billion) but also a very high failure rate.

There is a whole bureaucracy of Technology Transfer Officers (TTOs) within institutions trying to encourage and manage this process. There are also many grants and fellowships available to researchers who wish to follow this route and these often have useful training packages attached.

In the closing years of Silsoe I had been asked to develop a rumen telemetry system to monitor the efficacy of new pharmaceuticals being developed by the Pfizer company. This was technically challenging at the time but led to a viable if rather clunky system. The Institute then set up a company which we called Well Cow Ltd. The senior management took control and nominated a few shares for the founding staff.

There are a number of reasons why academic spinouts seldom succeed in attaining genuine commercial status with products on sale generating revenue.

The first problem is that TTOs and senior academic staff like to stay in control using the naivety of junior staff to accept their leadership and with the bulk of shares retained by the institution. This almost inevitably leads to a lack of speed and motivation to drive the business forward. Unless the institution has been working closely with customers for the new process or technology it is unlikely that an academic team will have the contacts and experience to develop a marketing plan quickly. It is hard to do market research unless you already have marketing experience. There is a cultural divide here too with scientists often disdaining the ways of speaking and thinking that are common in commercial circles.

As a start up moves from research to development it needs more resources and the price of money and the role of existing shareholders becomes a major consideration. A typical scaling of resource would be initial research 1, Development 10, Pre-production and launch 50. So if a supervised PhD costs £100k the next phase will cost £ 1 m and raising that much money has a price. The ideal would be to borrow the money at loan interest rates (say 5-10%) but no commercial lender would consider this unless there is collateral such as a guarantee from the institution or a founder with a property. Not many post-docs have a house worth £1m! So inevitably equity investors will be sought and they will want a massive return on their investment. Suddenly the management has to accept a dilution of the shares and manage expectations of shareholder returns. This requires the company to sell a dream rather than the reality which is that the investors are buying a gambling chip on an unknown roulette wheel which is what the market for a hitherto unknown product.

When I was first developing the idea of a biosensor to measure progesterone in milk in the 1990s. I was basing the science on the voltametric blood glucose disposal sensors. These sensors used were being produced in millions using lateral flow chemistry to convert glucose to glucose oxidase (GOD in the trade) and the release of electrons as a measurand. Our sensors used a similar lateral flow principle and voltametry and when I described the process to investors their response was often. “Could this work on blood glucose?” The reason they gave for asking this was that they could calculate a return on capital as the market for blood glucose monitoring and its growth was well known. Gaining a percentage share of that was something they could evaluate. Evaluating a market share in a market that doesn’t yet exist is impossible.

The skills needed to sell a dream whilst managing a transfer of activity from research to development is requires flexibility, speed and probably youthful naivety. Senior management of academic institutions are unlikely to have these skills and their role on the board of a start up is often to slow down progress and block opportunities.

  1. Model 4: Start-up your own development company

In 2005 as Silsoe Research Institute was closing, I was headhunted to an initiative of the Scottish Development Agency to set up a programme to develop automated condition based monitoring (CBM) for animals using wireless technologies. The initiative was called Intermediate Technology Institute with the idea being that these intermediaries with very large budgets would contract RTOs and companies to develop new technologies in strategic areas. The aim was noble and bold, to put in sufficient cash to stimulate new company formations, creating jobs in Scotland and moving away from the silicon glen screwdriver jobs which were disappearing to China. I arrived from the financially squeezed academic research sector into a world of sky high salaries and big budgets. Most of the senior staff at my division, ITITechmedia, in its glossy open plan office in the financial district of Glasgow,Scotland had been recruited from senior levels of major companies and this did not link well to the ethos of either academics or start-ups which tend to be started by people with a big vision and ambition and virtually no experience of business management. On day one I was told I had £6.2 m to spend and it must be done in 3 years. And by the way I had to spend £500k in the next 3 months. I spent the autumn of 2006 writing a massive contracting document and filed a patent on their behalf to protect the key IP of a wireless hub collar talking to multiple sensors mounted in or on the animal. At the same time I knew that this was not the real solution to the cow

1989 and 2022 turning points

I was asked recently by a friend why I am so engaged with Ukraine on LinkedIn. There is a short answer, I went there before the invasion a couple of times and saw the scale and beauty of the country and its resilience and I was emotionally pulled into helping refugees as best I could this year which opened my eyes to the genocide planned by Putin. But there is a longer answer about the phases of my life and how they map to global events. Global events impact our private lives in unpredictable ways.

The reason that the invasion of Ukraine and the dramatic failure of the Russian empire to impose its will on a nascent free country tends to the narrative version of history and the role of individuals. How can one not view Zelensky and his brilliant one liners “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition”, “we will build a future without heating but definitely without you (Russia)” as the epitome of cometh the hour cometh the man. He obviously has a highly competent team of generals and ministers and the slowly accelerating supply of modern weapons. It may lead to the collapse of the Russian imperial project that has dominated Eurasia for at least 300 years. Zelensky is on his way into history like Charles Martel who defeated a Muslim invasion of France in 732 or Churchill in 1940.

The last time I felt as energised positively by world events was in 1989 when like a set of skittles the countries of Eastern Europe were bowled out of the Soviet system. It coincided with my wife and I buying a ruined pig farm in Somerset and building a mobile home there. Week after week another country declared itself free and began requesting the withdrawal of the Soviet army garrisons sent to keep them in line. Some changes were violent (Romania) but most were more like an election result in a democracy. Of course, the huge work needed to sort out the mess left by communist mis- management was hidden and is still incomplete.

The new novel Lessons by Ian McEwen captures the elevated hopes that the fall of the Berlin Wall triggered for the hero Roland as he happened to be in Berlin trying to find his lost wife.

The grim settlement of the Second World War was ended. A peaceful Germany would be united. The Russian Empire was dissolving without bloodshed. A new Europe must emerge. Russia would follow Hungary, Poland and the rest to become a democracy. It might even lead the way. It was not so fantastical to imagine driving one day from Calais to the Bering Straits and never showing a passport. The Cold War’s nuclear menace was over. The great disarmament could begin. History books would close with this, a jubilant mass of decent people celebrating a turning point for European civilisation. The new century would be fundamentally different, fundamentally better, wiser. …….Russia, a liberal democracy, unfolding like a flower in spring. Nuclear weapons negotiated downwards to extinction. Then mega-tides of spare cash and good intentions flowing like fresh water, cleansing the dirt of every social problem. The general well-being refreshed, schools, hospitals, cities renewed. Tyrannies dissolving across the South American continent, the Amazon rainforests rescued and treasured – let poverty be razed instead of trees. For millions, time for music, dancing, art and celebration. Mrs Thatcher had demonstrated it at the UN – the political right had finally understood climate change and believed in action while there was time.”

In 1990 I had the privilege of attending the AgEng 1990 Conference in Berlin which by brilliant coincidental planning occurred during the week when Germany was politically reunited. It was easy to feel that huge surge of optimism. As we welcomed the dawn of the new Germany and Europe by walking up the Unter de Linden after each session we discussed how the 4th Agricultural revolution would be based on sensors, data and computers. We were testing our first milking robot at Silsoe at the time. That set the background for the next phase of my career in research and commercialisation of animal health sensing. That period ended in 2021 when I sold eCow’s IP to measure pH in bovine rumens having sold Milkalyser in 2020 with its automated LFA tester for progesterone.

Over the next 8 years as our children passed through sixth form to University we built a viable dairy goat farm, finding and breeding the herd, laying concrete yards, building airy housing solving problems in animal disease, marketing and fire fighting. We scavenged milking machine parts and built up an efficient milking parlour on a shoe string budget. All this for me was at weekends and in the long vacations of the research council that employed me to develop the UK’s first robotic milking system. By 1996 we had shown the commercial viability of our goat farm such that we were able to get permission and build a fine energy efficient four bedroomed house that we moved into on Christmas Day 1997.

Some of that optimism was justified and clearly some was very misplaced, Russia started but then failed to democratise and the political right tried to deny climate change. I think we need a new change in world history for the better after the disasters of Brexit, Covid and the war in Ukraine. Maybe the over privileged Boomers will give way to the next generations and see their house prices and pensions collapse to give youngsters a chance.

So 2022 and the Ukraine war also link to a sea change in my career as well as showing how resilient democracy is and how essential it is work to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

I am now working on a project to develop peri-urban horticulture trying to reduce food miles for vegetables, improving freshness and regenerating soil with robotic peasants. More will be revealed next year.