Cereal crops are stored in huge silos after harvest, but harmful conditions cause up to one fifth of grain stocks to spoil each year, which is an important threat to food security. Now space-enabled British technology will ensure less food is wasted between the field and our tables.
The first ever underground drone robot glides through heaps of wheat and barley grain to monitor the silo environment, providing information that was previously impossible to collect. It will allow farmers to easily identify when their stored crop is spoiling so they can take steps to protect it.
Developed by Edinburgh-based start-up Crover with support from the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK, the robot is being trialled at farms in Scotland and the north of England as harvest season draws to a close.
Novel technology developed by Crover founder Lorenzo Conti allows the device to fluently travel through bulk solids, much like a plane moves through the air.
The warm and humid conditions that regularly occur in silos are perfect for harmful moulds and pests to thrive, causing around 20% of grain stocks to be damaged and lost in storage each year.
The millions of tonnes of grain wasted globally are becoming increasingly important because of current threats to food security, including a rising global demand for food and yield unpredictability caused by climate change.
Current methods for monitoring grain stocks tend to leave large portions of the silo unchecked, meaning farmers are never sure whether their grain is spoiling or not.
The Crover robot covers every inch of the grain store to take accurate temperature and moisture measurements. Silos are often in remote and rural locations, so satellite communications are used to ensure data are transmitted reliably to the farmer or grain store manager.
The information will help them to better understand the silo environment and take early action to reduce losses if needed. Each robot is expected to save hundreds of tonnes of grain from spoiling each year.
“As a young start-up, we are excited to provide a solution to the problem of post-harvest losses to British farmers. Support from the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK was instrumental in getting our novel technology off the ground so quickly,” says Lorenzo.
“The technology will help build resilience in the food supply chain and the wider global food system – but it may also have applications outside of agriculture.”
"With world food demand set to increase by 70% up to 2050, we can't afford for our harvests to go to waste, and yet around 20% of our grain and 15% of our overall food is lost before even being distributed. Crover's robot inspires us to reduce this figure with clever technology, moving forwards on a key United Nations Sustainable Development Goal,” says Nick Appleyard, head of ESA Space Solutions.
“A satellite data relay is a critical element in this solution, and ESA has been proud to help the company to get started and develop their first product."
About the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK
The ESA Business Incubation Centre UK is part of the wider ESA Space Solutions programme, which aims to support commercial exploitation of space assets, data and capabilities by addressing incubation, proving technical feasibility and supporting business development. Managed by ESA and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the ESA Business Incubation Centre UK helps start-ups to develop space-connected products and services. The centre receives funding from the UK Space Agency, the University of Leicester and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.