A start-up which aims to use cutting-edge technologies to help farmers improve crop yields has raised £250,000 to launch its first product, a ‘crop scouting’ system which predicts the size and timing of harvests.
The system, which is suitable for high value crops such as broccoli and lettuce, is currently being trialled at Polybell Farm in Doncaster, one of the UK’s leading organic vegetable producers.
The Earth Rover system uses cameras fitted to a tractor to scan the plants and measure their growth as the vehicle passes through the fields on routine farm operations. The data is then analysed using artificial intelligence (AI) housed in a supercomputer on board the tractor.
Earth Rover, which is based in Shropshire, aims to provide more accurate predictions to help them produce the right number of crops – enough to meet contracts with buyers while avoiding food waste that has to be ploughed back into the fields. It also helps farmers plan their harvesting labour requirements.
Earth Rover will initially target growers in the UK and Spain, which has a year-round season. The company, which has been funded so far through angel investment and by a contract with the European Space Agency, is also working on robotic systems for herbicide-free weeding and harvesting.
The MEIF funding will be paid in two tranches over the next 12 months subject to commercial milestones and will allow the company to fund current trials and bring the product to market.
David Whitewood, CEO of Earth Rover, said: “Technologies such as AI and robotics have revolutionised manufacturing in recent years, yet agriculture has suffered from a lack of investment and still relies on traditional techniques. At a time when we face the challenge of feeding a growing population with limited land and labour supplies, it is time for agriculture to undergo the same transformation. At Earth Rover we aim to play a leading role in the digitisation of farming to make the industry more productive and sustainable.”
David Baker, investment manager at Mercia, added: “Vegetable growers routinely overplant crops due to the difficulty in predicting yields and the need to fulfil stringent contracts with supermarkets. This pushes up costs and means that much of the crop simply rots in the fields, creating additional carbon emissions. We believe Earth Rover’s system could help increase crop yields by 5 per cent and reduce costs by a similar amount. This funding will help the company to prove its value and launch into the market.”
Ryan Cartwright, senior manager at the British Business Bank, said: “This latest equity investment is a great example of the innovative Midlands’ businesses that the MEIF seeks to support. The funding will help Earth Rover as it begins to commercialise its technology and we’d encourage other start-ups within Shropshire and the Marches area to consider the options available through the MEIF.”
Mandy Thorn, chair of the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “This is a hugely exciting project which shows the Marches is at the cutting edge of innovation in agriculture and developing high-tech solutions which improve efficiency and sustainability. We are delighted that the MEIF has supported Earth Rover and look forward to this project going from strength to strength.”
The Midlands Engine Investment Fund project is supported financially by the European Union using funding from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020 and the European Investment Bank.