Hohenheim University

For my first meeting in Germany I visited Hohenheim University Professor Hans Griepentrog.  I am not the first Nuffield to walk through his door and I should not be the last.  The work here is still largely on autonomous machinery but the technology here appears to be a lot more functional and far closer to commercial reality.  The discussion was very valuable and filled some of the gaps I had in understanding and in the lexicon of the developers.

I have now been enlightened as the various terms for positioning the 2 critical factors for autonomous systems are absolute positioning (GPS based) and relative positioning (using local sensing such as laser scanners).  This helps to fill some gaps I had after Tsukuba, as I was sure they could comfortably operate in the local environment but that they didn’t really know where the machine would be in the paddock or what area had been covered.  The fusion of the 2 systems utilising both GPS and laser scanning will allow for the most adaptive systems to be developed.  It will enable the machine to know where it is in the paddock, what area has to be worked and what has been worked as well as being able to identify and negotiate obstacles.

An interesting point brought up in our discussion on impediments to this technology and it came from an unexpected quarter.  I had expected government to be all over this technology from a safety perspective and they are but they aren’t too concerned yet.  The issues arising are coming from farmers and people concerned that this technology is going to remove farmers from farms.  The underlying issue appears to be around agriculture becoming corporatized and taken over by large corporate companies.  My thoughts are that this technology will liberate farmers from the tractor cab and allow us greater time to focus on the agronomy and business decisions that we need to undertake.

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Professor Hans Griepentrog with his Autonomous tractor utilising both laser & GPS systems.  The bar on the front is a mechanical switch to prevent the machine from driving if computer failure results in a collision.

 


Japan

Well the Nuffield study has finally begun again after another 9 months break and has taken me to Japan. With Katrina and Peggy our nearly 2 year old in tow we flew out of Sydney on the night of the 15th. After negotiating Narita to Shinjuku via rail and then locating our hotel we ventured out for an afternoon of wandering the area and visiting a ramen noodle restraint for dinner. I headed off on Monday morning for the University of Tsukuba to visit my Bangladeshi host Dr Tofael Ahamed.

Tofael is undertaking his doctorate in agricultural engineering through the university.  He is quite an international citizen having lived and worked in Pakistan the USA and Japan.  He has been a wonderful contact and a most generous host during my time at Tsukuba and I am most grateful for the effort that he has put into my visit.

The major reason for my visit to the university was to gain a better understanding of autonomous systems in agriculture at the research level. I had no expectations for my visit so I could walk in I thought with an open mind.  That said it is difficult to leave your biases at the door.  Given the location I had expected vehicles to be set up for rice production which would have terrain and conditions not dissimilar to what I work on at home.  How wrong was I, the research is looking at the extremes of autonomy in scenarios that I would manage as idle ground or run a few sheep on.  They are working on how to guide machinery in high slope and with limited access to GPS signal with cover over head from foliage and many obstacles in the form of trees.  This is pretty much what I would call a no go zone for machinery as not only are there these issues to contend with but there is also the other issues of working with machines near their tipping point in potentially very wet and slippery ground conditions with liquid loads.

It will be a while before this technology is market ready of that I have little doubt.  The areas where this technology will be used most are at present in the areas of the world with very low labour costs and typically are managed in very small areas.  The technology and sensing requirements let alone the data requirements for communications put it in the science fiction realm at present.  One day it will come to pass though and I have little doubt that it will revolutionise production on palm oil, bananas and other tree crops.  The present work is on using a single horizontal plane laser at roughly 40cm which identifies obstacles nearby, it then uses the 3 closets objects plus itself to create a polygon and the guidance shoots for the centre point. As the tractor moves the polygon shape changes and the tractor continues to drive to the centre.  As an object drops from the field of vision the computer moves to the next closest object and the process starts again.  Despite the mind boggling large number calculations that are going on the system is relatively smooth.

Below are a few picture of the hardware they are working with.

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My hosts for the couple of days at Tsukuba in front of their pride and joy autonomous tractor.

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Some very serious computational power is required and keeping it cool in warm environments requires some serious fans.

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The eyes of the operation a single horizontal laser

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I must admit I did get a little excited about this machine.

For our final night in Tokyo we were lucky enough to catch up with a school friend Phil Kneipp who is working Tokyo.  The view from his apartment was spectacular and the hospitality of he and his wife Susanna showed us was too generous but greatly appreciated by us all.

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Reflections of India

It is all the cliches you here of, but these do little to highlight the dichotomy of this polar society that will in time be a global super power. If only the people would/could be released from the suffocating breast of paternalistic governments. Wherever the government gets involved progress is stymied. Their initial involvement has far reaching deleterious effects that limit not only the advancement of the Indian people but also the entire world.

1 billion young people yearning for a better life are being short changed through inadequate education, an expensive monoculture of food and energy pricing which is preventing the efficient from thriving. If the economy can be set free this mass of humanity will change the world in a major way with benefits flowing around the world.

This should not take away from the beautiful people who are so friendly, engaging and generous hosts. No matter where we went outside the major cities we where treated to such wonders of human contact and interaction. You are nearly always made feel most welcome and comfortable where ever you go.

Incredible India.

Mysore Palace

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Sowing

Sorry there haven’t been any posts for such a long time things have been a little hectic of late. I have 5 minutes and as we are getting on the back end of sowing (starting what i hope is our last paddock today), I thought I should pass one of the better sides to being so busy. This was a photo from a couple of weeks ago, sorry the quality isn’t better but phones don’t come with an SLR yet.

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Bonnie Scotland

The trek to Brora in the north of Scotland was originally just to visit a friend from school who I hadn’t spoken to or seen in about 6 years and also as a challenge to see the larger part of what is a pretty small island. When I first suggested I’d visit I had no idea it was over 600miles (nearly 1000km) from London. Not that far until you realize that there is 500 roundabouts and 100 villages lying in between. Besides I was starting from York so how far can it be? A rather long way when your by yourself as I found out.

My friend when I reached her rolled me straight of to a local party and I could have been in any small country towns golf club, anywhere in Australia. This was the quintessential Aussie golf club but stuck in the north of Scotland. The party was a bit of fun and my first scottish culinary experience was haggis. It was rather enjoyable if not a little too salty.

When morning roused me from slumber the views were amazing highlands of heather to the west and coast line to the east. The look around the farm with my friend suggested that she had lost little of her vivacity from school and that she had had an impact on her new families business. She’d encouraged and succeeded in getting the lambing outdoors and with minimal intervention, encouraged a change to the breed meatlinc’s which I still know little about but understand they have been objectively tested and selected as a breed for the last 30 years. The impact has been profound on the business and they are now turning a profit before the subsidy cheques roll in which makes them a rare breed indeed in this land.

It was here that I realized that the UK is 3 nations, the English are British but the Scots are Scotch and the Welsh are Welsh. The attitudes are different and the problems and issues far removed from England. Things like the “right to roam” which is the unfettered access to all farmland by any member of the public, Crofters (birth rite hobby farmers) and their (as a generalization) sense of entitlement. The amazing thing was the lack of scale, this would be one of the least populated corners of the UK. The farms are larger, some many thousand of acres, but only running several hundred sheep the larger up to 1200 with full time managers. The goal appeared for many of the larger operations (usually owned by outside interests) to make the pages in the Scottish equivalent of “The Land” with their lamb sales and then to go shooting deer.

I feel I am under selling this area on my little tirade with very limited exposure, a day is not enough to develop a real understanding so lease do take this with a grain of salt. I should mention how wonderful and friendly the people were, the few I met at least. Very welcoming and highly considered in their thoughts regardless of whether the topic be politics and the impending referendum on Scottish autonomy, Crofting, mainstream agriculture or society in general. I really do hope I can get back to this corner of the world and appreciate a bit more of what it has to offer.

Yours truly, spoiling a beautiful vista of the Scottish highlands near Brora

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Diversified huh

To finish the Contemporary Scholars tour off we visited a couple rather interesting farms that have had a novel approach to making the best of their resources. Both are interesting for different reasons but a common theme between the two was the desire of the managers to both engage the broader community in agriculture. One through setting up what is “Open farm Sunday” the other has set up an amusement park. The first business I will touch on was difficult to keep track of whilst driving around the 1800acre operation we tried to keep track of what we had seen the list was extensive and I suspect we missed a few things. Here goes any way

Theme park
This humble park which is pitched at children aged under 10 sees 500,000 visitors a year. I tried to put this in a context, would the farm at home have had 500,000 visitors since the aboriginals settled Australia? The theme was agriculture and they did a great job of introducing farming to children. There was a lot of fun to be had though and a few scholars may have tried out a couple of the amusements. This was combined with a farm shop that had a rather extensive range from food to wrought iron. But this was just the beginning of what was to come on the farm tour.

Rental
If you need space for a business with an hour of the London CBD this is the place to go the diversity of businesses housed on this farm was amazing and now that it has been a couple of weeks I will have forgotten a few things, please forgive me but here’s a start.
Composting
Machinery rental
Private school
Portable building storage
Storage for equipment from freeway upgrade
Desanding and graveling of soil (this was amazing whole paddocks are lifted, sifted and laid back down)
Police dog training

Cropping
I think this was just a sideline, it was certainly a very small proportion of the business turnover. There were certainly challenges to cropping in this environment the soils where not pretty. But they were problems I’d have gladly taken off them if I could average 2.5-3t/acre (6.25-7.5t/ha)

Recreation
The other side of the business was the letting out of area for recreational usage thus was also quite extensive and encompassed most things barring the big English country past time of pheasant shooting, which the estate owner still held.
Horse cross country riding
2 gun clubs
Model aircraft club
Ultralight aircraft club
Aircraft museum

I’m sure I’ve missed a few here but he even relayed a story of the previous manager charging a Ferrari owner £50 to use the farm roads to test his new brakes so he could get a road worthiness certificate.

It did alter your sense of what you could do with the resources at your disposal but it had to be put in context. The business had 3-4 million people within 30min and 8million within an hours drive. To pick up the same population bases at home you need to drive 5hours in the first instance and over 9hours for the larger group. I don’t think I’ll be putting in an amusement park anytime soon but it certainly was interesting.

The second business of the day was in many regards your typical if what slightly larger than average midlands arable farm, growing wheat, barley and oilseed rape. The first thing that struck me was the rockiness of the soil and the compaction. A set of cultivation points would last 3/4 of day it is little wonder the owner was keen on minimum tillage. The compaction really stood out on the end of a paddock where the previous year it had been put down to crop for pheasants so had missed most of the machinery passes for just one year. The farmer is aware of the shortcomings of his present system but there seems to be a lack of understanding of control traffic (which seems like it would have a good fit) in the UK.

The quirk to this farm was the rental of office space to local businesses. The key factor they had was the lower cost to town
and city rentals. The farm buildings had been sitting idle and this offered a very handy income stream to the business. It feels as if this is now a major part of the business and offers more enjoyment to the manager than the farming operation.

The composting facility the screen is used to remove the the plastic contaminants

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Rather abrasive midlands soil

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80% are Sheep

This is now coming on a fortnight ago and I must apologize for my tardy blogging. We were hosted in the beautiful building of the Institute of company directors in Westminster. This grand old building is quite a masterpiece but it would be overshadowed later in the day by other buildings but more importantly by the speakers.

The theme for the day was leadership, a topic that leaves me vexed. The reason being that I feel neither a need to be led nor desire for others necessarily to follow me. In fact I find it a little odd and more than bordering arrogant for me to suggest that people would wish to follow me. Rather I hope I can put forward well tested arguments to challenge people, as to wether or not they agree with me should be fully tested from their perspective and not blindly followed. In light of this there are definitely charismatic people who do draw a crowd and can influence the mood. If I can learn to do this effectively to help tell a more positive and hopefully enlightening version of agricultures story then I’ll view it as a positive.

Foods Position in the Economy

The kick off for the day was from a very well respected professor on, foods position in the economy and he gave some wonderfully sobering though enlightening points on food. The key themes that resonated were;

Food items tend to have lower profitability, the key to real success is if you can make your product addictive.

Longevity and success in the market place can be linked to brands that customers value

What’s good for citizens and the environment should be good for business

Develop intellectual property in products that can be leveraged in the market place.

At the end I was left asking the question why as a generalization do farmers have a high level of apathy towards their customers? I strongly suspect in an Australian context it is largely to do with our history of statutory marketing authorities which have taken the responsibility and initiative out of the hands of farmers to engage with their customers.

The Politician

The following presentation was delivered by a former scholar who has a reasonable influence within the EU. His introduction stated that he left on his Nuffield a farmer and returned a politician. The take homes were simple yet many we are not being effective at in agricultural advocacy;

The capacity to foster change is greatest immediately following the point where a mandate is received, it weakens with time.

Agriculture needs to develop an offensive position in the debate. This will help to frame the discussion.

Stress fosters innovation, keep yourself under some level of stress.

Politicians are more grateful to those identify and frame the problem and bring a solution all in one meeting.

A truly Great Man

The presentation prior to lunch could and probably will be the most memorable and highest impact speech I ever hear. I will not attempt to relate the most moving parts I could not do them justice. I will say that this man is one of the bravest individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting he had the room shell shocked and many people including yours truly in tears. May the days and years ahead for this man be easier than those he has recently walked.

He did a wonderful job of framing what Nuffield means and could do it with many years experience that will help myself and the group of scholars understand more clearly and quickly what we have got ourselves into.

Privilege; not in a pompous way but that we are a fortunate few who have been given such a wonderful opportunity that we will never get again.
Family; I/we have just gained a wonderfully diverse new family from all around the world and they are all welcome to visit and call anytime.
Mindset; a constant questioning and testing of what we and our industries are doing given the environments we’re facing and whether adjustments need to be made.

At the end of this, things had been put into a very clear perspective. He described it quite eloquently that “what matters is how much love you foster”. That may sound a little corny but take love in the context of the friendship and passion that you foster. If I can cultivate many more genuine friendships to go with the the great friends I have and help foster in these people a passion for what they do I will count myself a very fortunate individual.

After all this and the feeling of melancholy that I descended into in the first instance and joy that quickly followed in realizing that despite my many wasted opportunities I was better equipped to deal with the opportunities that will present themselves in the future. The final question I had after all this and the impact it had had was why are we so afraid of honesty when it is so profound.

Presentation and throwing off the shackles.

Our final speaker was 2 standard deviations away from accepting people for what they are. He was a professional in unlocking peoples potential. By which I mean he would tell people very succinctly what it was about themselves in appearance and personalty that was holding them back. The biggest individual things I learnt was to pitch yourself appropriately to the audience be they a board room or school children and listen to the criticisms of those who know you best. They know what is holding you back and they are only trying to help unshackle you from your dead weight.

One of the speakers I can’t remember now just who put people into three categories

80% are sheep
10% are pessimists
10% are optimists

Which category do you fit in? I hope I’m an optimist but I’ll wait to hear what my nearest and dearest say to assess if I need to work on changing categories.

In the afternoon we were given a tour of the houses of parliament at Westminster. It is impressive what you can build with the wealth of plundered colonies over several hundred years. I recommend anyone given the opportunity to take a tour through these beautiful structures, they are very impressive and the depth of history is amazing.

Sadly this was the only photo I could take in Westminster photos weren’t allowed

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