Outfield, an AgriTech company in Cambridge, is using drone technology, AI and data science to help growers achieve a more productive, sustainable and environmentally friendly harvest from high value orchard crops. The SmithsonHill team caught up with Co-Founder Oli Hilbourne, when he was just back from carrying out surveys of apple orchards, to find out more about how they are working across technologies to create something pretty amazing.

Outfield founders Oli Hilbourne and Jim McDougall

Tell us a bit more about how your technology works

The survey involves counting individual blossom and doing a 3d survey of the trees using our drone technology. Our technology will then automatically asses the amount of blossom on individual trees within orchard. It lets the farmer think about managing the yield earlier in the season. Our technology will give growers control over the level of the harvest that hasn’t been possible before.

Orchard with blossom

Data Image showing blossom count at orchard

 

Our technology is able to link data between blossom numbers and fruit harvest, and is also able to carry out surveys into health of trees, irrigation and foliage density, which helps to point toward problems and the causes behind the problems. Ultimately, we help the grower get a more productive, sustainable and environmentally friendly fruit harvest.

 

How did you get into AgriTech?

Both myself and my Co-founder were really interested in how cutting-edge technology can have a direct impact on the real world. We wanted to explore the interface between the cyber world and real world – turning data into real-world consequences.  AgriTech is the heart of this, the data has a direct, tangible impact on the real world. We wanted to build digital systems that have scalable impact.

Can you briefly explain what your tech is?

Our technology uses drone technology, AI and an integrated data platform. We use AI to segment and pick out individual trees, to determine blossom and fruit levels. Using AI for the data sets for the whole orchard allows us to pick out trends and identify problems.  For us, the cross-over of technologies that we are using is one of the reasons why it is good to be based in Cambridge.

Why did you base your company in Cambridge? 

We were in Cambridge at the time and it seemed like a really good place to start up. In hindsight, there is nowhere better to be to start a company like this. There are so many strengths with the research organisations nearby, there is AgriTech research nearby, the Cambridge tech bubble, and support for startups.  It also has a good balance between access to growers and access to technology clusters.

It would really help us to be in an AgriTech centre, with somewhere to put muddy boots and it would be good to see more AgriTech focused mentoring. As an expanding sector, it would be good to see more of this concentrated in one place, rather than scattered across the greater Cambridge area.

As an AgriTech start-up, what would you say are the biggest challenges and opportunities for global scale up of AgriTech companies in Cambridge?

AgriTech has its own challenges, as you are working at such scale, the trial farms are spread out, with lots of travel between sites. Seasons don’t wait, if you miss the growing season, you would have to wait 12 months or we’d have to get out to the southern hemisphere season. So, the challenge for us is in working fast enough to take advantage of all the opportunities we have within the AgriTech sector.

What is the single most important thing we need to do to improve global food security? How are you addressing this?

In the short term, reducing usage of chemicals, sprays create the biggest impact on biodiversity. The numbers of chemicals that can be used are reducing, as an industry, we need to reduce reliance on them.  In the long term, reducing water usage will be critical. Although it seems like it rains all the time here, the UK will feel the effects long term and we need to reduce water usage.

More reliance on data will help to solve both of these problems. Through clever use of data, growers can be more targeted in reducing both chemical and water usage.

Also, as global temperatures rise the products we can grow here will change, wine production is likely to become bigger in the UK and we are already finding that our client base includes many vineyards.

Is it enough for the industry to make small changes in the way we do things? Is it time for an ‘agricultural revolution’?

I think we need to make small changes, but constantly. Big revolutionary change is a way to alienate growers, we need to focus on continuous improvement leading to a bigger revolution. With Outfield, we are trying to provide new perspectives on data, we are delivering that back to growers in a way that works with their current processes.  We are trying to avoid alienating people, to drive changes which will add up in time. Through small steps we can bring about the revolution we need.

Other than yourselves, who are your Ones to Watch in the AgriTech and FoodTech worlds?

Other Cambridge based startups to watch are KisanHub and Yagro, and another UK early stage startup we are excited about is the Small Robot Company.

Drone in front of Orchard at sunset

The SmithsonHill team were very excited to hear about the impact that Outfield is making within the world of AgriTech.  Outfield are currently looking for collaborations with other technology companies who may be able to collaborate to improve productivity in food harvest, and with fruit farmers in the UK or EU to test out systems on. They will be starting a funding round later this year.  For more information visit www.outfield.xyz – new website coming in June!

 

Oli Hilbourne is one of the founders of AgriTech startup Outfield. Oli’s background is in aerospace engineering, before founding Outfield he worked at Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge on modifications to a variety of manned military and civil aircraft. Oli studied engineering at Durham University where he met his Outfield co-founder Jim McDougall. On top of running a startup company, Oli organises the Cambridge High Flyers monthly drone meetup and writes the weekly Petersfield pub quiz.