Fruit growers and preservers Wilkin & Sons have joined forces with academic experts at the University of Essex in a KTP, with funding from Innovate UK, 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, will work with the University of Essex on a project which combines research on plant disease with Internet of Things (IoT) and computer vision expertise to monitor strawberry crop disease by drone, with the aim 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. 

Jan Stringer,  Knowledge Transfer Adviser supporting the project, commented: “From the first time I met the  Wilkins /University of Essex team I could see how this partnership could combine three diverse areas of expertise to create unique innovation for this iconic British brand. As we developed the  project plans, it was great to see both the economic and societal benefits that it could enable – both of which I know are core to Wilkin’s unique ethos.  I am really excited to help facilitate these plans coming to fruition over the next two growing seasons. The project is also part of the KTN and Innovate UK’s drive to support innovation in the Agri Food sector to improve resilience during these  challenging times. Recently the KTN has helped found a large UK agri-food consortium to address agricultural labour shortages by accelerating the use of robotics and automation (R&A) for picking and packing fresh fruit and vegetables”.

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 needs. 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. 

Funding competitions for KTP are open throughout the year, and the current one closes on 15 July. Find out more about how KTP can help you deliver innovation here


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