With poor planting conditions in Autumn followed by a Spring drought and more recent heavy rains, the UK is facing a tough harvest. However, the challenges don’t end once grain is safely stored – uncontrolled temperature and moisture levels can lead to pests and mould. Unfortunately, accurately monitoring the condition of stored grain is fraught with difficulty, contributing to global post-harvest grain losses of more than 20%.
Step forward the UK Government’s official innovation agency, Innovate UK, which has provided £250,000 in funding for a project that aims to tackle the problem. It sees technology start-up Crover Ltd, Agri-EPI Centre and East of Scotland Farmers join together to develop the first robot able to safely sample grain bulks at various depths and while still in storage, where existing methods cannot.
Each one of the robotic devices, called the ‘Crover’, is expected to be able to save a total of 380 tonnes of grain (wheat and barley) every year. Until now, current grain solutions could only reach near the surface, posing a safety hazard to operators collecting the samples. However, Crover’s remote probing device is able to autonomously collect samples throughout the whole silo/shed providing early detection of potential spoilage to enable steps to be taken to reduce losses and maintain quality.
The ‘grainbot’ will now be trialled over the next 18 months at the East of Scotland Farmers co-operative in Perth & Kinross, at a farm in Northumberland and within Agri-EPI’s network of partner farms.
“Post-harvest losses have serious financial impacts for cereal storage sites such as farms, grain merchants, millers and breweries,” said Lorenzo Conti, Crover’s managing director. “But they also have significant social and environmental consequences, which are becoming ever more even more pressing due to threats such as increasing global food demand, intense price volatility, and harvest unpredictability due to climate change. Four and a half billion people per year are exposed to dangerous mycotoxins from grain moulds which contaminate 25% of the world’s food supply. The carbon footprint from cereal storage losses equates to 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions from food waste.”
According to Conti, the patented technology behind the Crover robot allows it to fluently ‘swim’ through bulk solids, such as cereals and grains, monitoring their condition while they are still in storage and without leaving any grain unchecked. “Our aim is to improve grain storage systems, helping to build the resilience of the grain supply chain and the wider global food system.”
“Cereal grains are the basis of staple food, yet post-harvest losses during long-term storage are significant and high,” added Dave Ross, chief executive of Agri-EPI Centre. “Through this new and very exciting collaboration, the partners will blend their technological and industry expertise to investigate how the Crover can respond to that challenge by working effectively in commercial grain storage sites, with potentially huge benefits to the agri-food industry and wider society.”
“We have a special interest in obtaining representative samples from silos and stores full of malting barley, so that we can accurately assess their recovery from dormancy before being dispatched to maltster customers,” noted Robin Barron, general manager of East of Scotland Farmers.
Ian Cox, Innovate UK’s Agri-tech Centre policy lead, concluded: “Innovate UK is pleased to have been able to support this innovative and exciting project. It has the potential to deliver significant impact in terms of improving food safety and security as well as helping to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.”