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Outfield's agritech drones are blossoming




Outfield Technologies co-founders Jim McDougall, left, and Oli Hilbourne at Cambridge Judge Business School. Picture: Keith Heppell
Outfield Technologies co-founders Jim McDougall, left, and Oli Hilbourne at Cambridge Judge Business School. Picture: Keith Heppell

Outfield Technologies, a Cambridge-based agritech company which uses drone technology, AI and data science to help growers maximise their harvest from high-value orchard crops, is set to go beta with its platform – and will launch a funding round later in the year.

The company’s technology is so sensitive it can count the blossoms on a tree as it surveys an apple orchard. An accurate assessment of the harvest then allows growers to be more productive, sustainable and environmentally friendly, explains Outfield’s commercial director Jim McDougall.

“Our aerial imagery analysis focuses on crop management,” Jim says. “Yield prediction and yield management work together, so a grower can sell all their apples in April even though they’re only being harvested now.

“Sales can’t usually be managed by growers but with aerial surveys you get a yield prediction which is much more accurate than any other method. Usually, only 80 per cent of the crop is sold, because you can’t afford to misquote, so you undersell, and that means some of the crop being left on the tree to rot.”

3D orchard computer model is part of Outfield Technologies' platform
3D orchard computer model is part of Outfield Technologies' platform

The UK has around 5,800 hectares of apple orchards – down from 14,000 in 1994 and 8,000 in 2004.

“It all depends on the juice prices,” Jim continues. “For instance, last year Poland, which produces 10 times the amount of apples the UK produces, had a bumper apple crop, so juice prices were low, so in the UK the fruit from available for the fourth pick of the season was left unharvested – it wasn’t worth collecting.

“That’s the place the industry has been in, until now.”

Outfield’s platform is supported by Huntingdon Road-based NIAB, a world-class research organisation dedicated to plant science, breeding crop evaluation and agronomy.

“Our drones fly at about 15 to 20 metres high, taking images at a 45-degree angle on the camera, and we can see the blossom far more effectively,” says Jim. “Too many blossoms means small apples at harvest, too few blossoms means much larger apples.

Kent blossom can be counted in April for accurate harvest estimate in the autumn
Kent blossom can be counted in April for accurate harvest estimate in the autumn

“From the blossom we can give an early estimate – it’s not 100 per cent accurate, but our platform provides growers with much better data.”

The platform has been developed with assistance from ARU’s REACTOR project, an EU-funded attempt to help SMEs to grow by engaging customers with new gamified products.

“Some very clever chaps there helped build the cloud-based platform for us,” Jim says. “The UK has the best technology and the best technology scientists in the world. We’re pretty much ready to go as a beta test for the end of the month.”

The testing process will also see the company port the model into crops other than apples. Meanwhile members of the team, which is based at both Cambridge Judge Business School and ideaSpace, head for South Africa next month.

“We know what we’re aiming to do in the next two or three years,” Jim says. “The opening investment round will happen in October or November, the round closes by February, we’ll test the products out at scale in New Zealand and roll out across the UK next year in time for the new season.”



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