Delta T Devices: bringing research grade precision agriculture to growers

Delta-T Devices, based in Burwell just outside Cambridge, have for decades been involved in the design and manufacture of instruments for agricultural and environmental research. Over the years this has led to their involvement in smart irrigation technology development and precision agriculture.

Tony Peloe

 

The SmithsonHill team caught up with Tony Peloe, International Sales Manager, to find out more about what this AgriTech industry stalwart has been getting up to.

 

 

Delta T Devices was in precision agriculture before AgriTech was a thing – how did the company get into AgriTech?

It was a natural progression, borne from many collaborations with lead academic researchers and organisations. We have a strong heritage in the design of environmental measurement sensors for academic research – it was a logical to apply this expertise in the development of products for commercial growers. A major success borne from this collaborative approach to product design is the WET-2 Sensor for substrate horticulture. This project, a Delta-T Devices collaboration with Wageningen University in The Netherlands, resulted in what has become the industry standard tool for monitoring root zone water and fertilizer levels.

Our involvement in UK and European collaborations has allowed Delta-T Devices to forge valuable links with growers, researchers and other manufacturers to approach industry challenges, and find solutions that can be transferred to the sector.

An early example of such a project was FlowAID (Farm Level Optimal Water Management Assistant for Irrigation under Deficit). With 10 academic and industry partners from across eight countries alongside commercial growers in the Middle East, Turkey, and Southern Europe, the project aimed to provide farmers with “more crop per drop”. The challenge was twofold – maintain or enhance crop yield and quality under quite harsh conditions; whilst also further reducing water use and run-off (in one instance attempting to completely eliminate ground water pollution to an aquifer).

FlowAID demonstrated that the introduction of innovative technologies can raise water use efficiency by up to 60% while maintaining similar crop yields. Whilst the use of fertilizers can be reduced by up to 30% – a significant cost saving and boost to the environment.

Can you briefly explain what your technology is?

Our range of products cover an extensive range of application areas, including plant physiology, meteorology, data acquisition, solar energy, crop and forest canopy, and soil moisture. In the agri-hort sector a combination of our data loggers, soil sensors and weather sensors allow us to create a platform that can closely monitor growing conditions. With that data it is possible to then automatically control aspects of the growing environment such as irrigation amounts and timing, fertilizer levels, ventilation, and supplementary lighting.

Sensor system in a strawberry greenhouseOur precision irrigation package is demonstrated as part of the WET Centre – based at NIAB EMR in Kent. This impressive greenhouse complex and training centre shows how cutting edge technologies can be applied in a commercial setting. Sensor data from the WET Centre is available to view in highly visual dashboard format on mobile devices as part of our online DeltaLINK-Cloud platform, and our GP2 data logger and controller is integrated with a Netafim irrigation rig. Ongoing collaborations are looking to add weather forecasting and disease models to our data logger and CLOUD.

Building on our experience in optimising greenhouse crop production, we are now looking to apply our technology to field agriculture, where demand for higher yield is also leading to the greater uptake of technology. Our aim is to deliver research grade sensors with advanced wireless technology at a low enough price point to be practical for farm installation on a mass scale.

In the UK, the government’s Industrial strategy highlights AgriTech as a key way to meet productivity targets in the future.  How does your technology help improve productivity for farmers?

One of our soil moisture sensors, the SM150T, has been adopted by major Israeli irrigation company Netafim for use in their NETBEAT™ sensor platform. Netbeat is used globally to improve productivity in farming. Knowing when and how much water and fertilizer to apply can reduce costs, improve  crop quality and yield, and reduce diffuse pollution.

As an established AgriTech company, what would you say are the biggest challenges and opportunities for global scale up of AgriTech companies?

We regularly speak to growers at industry events around the world – and there is a consensus that better use of AgriTech is needed to meet the challenge of providing food to a fast growing global population, sustainably. However, we find that some new entrants to the market do not deliver the quality of technology to growers that they expect. Many growers have therefore had very poor experiences, and unfortunately this often erodes trust in new technology and can slow the general uptake process.

We believe that over time substandard technical solutions will be naturally filtered out of the market place. But, as an industry, AgriTech companies could help with this process, perhaps by working together to instigate the voluntary adoption of quality standards.

There are huge opportunities in the AgriTech sector. Growers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are keen to adopt new technologies to improve their operations and produce. With the right technology at the right price I’m sure we’ll continue to see very positive enhancements to the way food is grown.

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

Availability of water is the biggest issue globally, a challenge made more difficult by the effects of climate change – with more varied weather patterns, increased flooding and more drought. Globally, there is a pressing need to use water more efficiently. In order to feed local populations it is likely that marginal lands will need to be brought under production, using tolerant plant types and smart irrigation regimes to make scarce water go further. The Flow Aid project (outlined above) looked specifically at solving this problem.

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

Both – there is a revolution already underway in consumer electronics, miniaturisation, battery technology, communication networks. These developments make it possible, and affordable, to get data remotely from a large area and displayed on mobile phones, often with the help of low-priced Apps.

Growers are able to take advantages of these relatively low cost devices to explore possibilities and test capabilities with little risk involved. This phenomena is well demonstrated by the recent proliferation of drone technology on farms.

Growers also appear to be increasingly interested in ‘looking under the hood’ at far greater detail than ever before with regards to on-farm measurements and the combining of different strands of data to give the “bigger picture”.

Another trend we have noted is that commercial growers are getting more involved in plant breeding and academic research projects – often funded by UK Government or EU grants. As a result, they are becoming more familiar with plant physiological responses and the pursuit of better adapted crop phenotypes (with, for example, increased drought and salt tolerance).

Technology adoption in the sector overall is likely to remain steady and incremental rather than revolutionary (at least for the foreseeable future). However, it is certainly becoming increasingly rare to find a UK grower that denies the need for some kind of technological assistance with decision making in crop management.

Who are your Ones to Watch in the AgriTech and FoodTech worlds?

With increased market demand and grower’s investment in technology it is inevitable that a select few AgriTech companies will grow substantially – acquiring smaller technology providers in that process. Almost certainly companies such as Google and Microsoft will enter the market in a much more visible way – they are already very active – and it is likely that they will acquire or partner with established AgriTech technology providers. This would be a natural step for these mega companies as their core competency is in large data handling and visualisation. Looking to the future, on-farm decision making and automation will mean acting upon a wealth of data from varied platforms and sources, most likely in real time. This will need huge “back-office” resources that few other companies can provide.

 

The SmithsonHill team really enjoyed finding out more about Delta-T Devices, you can find out more about DeltaT Devices at www.delta-t.co.uk.  If you’d like to know more about how the Cambridge AgriTech Cluster is developing – start here.