Fruit growers and preservers Wilkin & Sons have joined forces with academic experts at the University of Essex to monitor and prevent disease of their strawberry crop using the latest computer vision techniques.
Wilkin & Sons who have farmed in Tiptree for nearly 300 years have won funding as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), the UK Government led scheme helping businesses and universities collaborate.
The funding will help Wilkin & Sons and the University of Essex combine research on plant disease with Internet of Things (IoT) and computer vision expertise to monitor strawberry crop disease by drone, with the goal of reducing inputs and improving yield.
Wilkin’s ambition is to innovate and become more productive in terms of yield for the strawberry growing arm of the business, while minimising any negative environmental impacts from their operations across their 850-acre farm.
The innovative system developed as part of the KTP will integrate wireless sensor networks and computer vision to help Wilkin & Sons work more proactively, enabling them to predict disease outbreaks and target infected crops quickly, should diseases like botrytis and mildew arise.
Chris Newenham, Joint Managing Director at Wilkin & Sons, said: “Innovation is key to business growth, whether it’s on our farm, in our factory, or the way that we treat people and adapt our products. We continue to explore ways to improve the management and sustainability of our LEAF Marque farm. We value the expertise of the University of Essex and look forward to working with them to improve the yield of our strawberry plants and reduce our inputs.”
Wilkin & Sons looked to enhance monitoring of disease within the crop through solutions which are currently not available ‘off-the-shelf’. The University of Essex is home to experts in computer vision, hyperspectral analysis and plant physiology that will build a bespoke system to solve their business need.
Dr Hossein Anisi, Head of the Internet of Everything (IoE) Laboratory and the academic supervisor for the KTP project from Essex’s School of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, said: “This interdisciplinary project on precision agriculture gives us the opportunity to implement the latest techniques in IoT and wireless sensor networks to valuable, real world data. Wilkin & Sons have a unique business challenge and deploying a solution via the integration of IoT and computer vision offers the academic team novel research applications for this expertise. I look forward to being part of this exciting project and am keen to support Wilkin & Sons on their mission.”
A full-time KTP Associate will be recruited and based at Wilkin’s Tiptree farm, to lead the research using cutting-edge hyperspectral analysis and computer vision technologies. They will be working with Wilkin’s farming General Manager to develop the novel disease monitoring and predication system.
Head of Business Engagement at the University of Essex, Robert Walker, said: "This project perfectly aligns with our ambition to deliver innovation across agriculture. Essex has expertise in computer vision, embedded systems and plant science, as shown in the recent launch of EPIC – the Essex Plant Innovation Centre, which aims to harmonise the interdisciplinary challenges associated with embedding technology in this industry. I’m delighted to announce this award from Innovate UK to supercharge our ambition in this space."
Critically, the technology developed in the KTP can be replicated across Wilkin & Son’s other soft fruit crops, enhancing quality and helping them continue on their mission of reducing inputs and improving yield.
Essex is one of the top three universities in the UK for the number of Innovate UK-funded Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, and ranks as the third best KTP Support Team across all UK universities.
KTPs are Innovate UK’s flagship program for collaboration. They connect businesses and social enterprises across the UK with expertise, cutting-edge technology and research in our universities and link them up with ambitious graduate talent.