TU Delft AgTech Institute: a new platform for the agricultural sector
TU Delft is playing an increasingly important role in agriculture and horticulture to help meet the rising demand for technical innovations in these sectors. The recently established AgTech Institute stimulates scientific research in this area and encourages cooperation between scientists, the business community and industry. “In five years’ time, TU Delft will be the go-to partner for technological solutions in the field of AgTech.”
The general public will not immediately think of TU Delft when it comes to solutions for agriculture and horticulture, yet it is a logical combination. Agricultural and horticultural businesses are increasingly making use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, robotics and renewable energy. This requires highly technical knowledge and expertise, which is precisely the domain of TU Delft. To illustrate this: a team of TU Delft scientists and students recently won the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge, a competition in which algorithms compete against real growers to cultivate tomatoes.
Moreover, TU Delft is in a good geographical position to cooperate with this sector: take in the view from the top of the tallest building on Campus and you can see the greenhouses of the Oost- and Westland horticultural region. Business developer Liselotte de Vries says that TU Delft’s best minds make a perfect match with the best entrepreneurs in the horticultural sector. She leads the Institute together with Scientific Director Roeland van Ham and an Academic Board.
Why was the AgTech Institute established?
“The institute aims to bring supply and demand together,” says Liselotte. “In other words, we want to translate scientific knowledge into practice and vice versa. Agriculture is one of the most important sectors in the world and the Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter after the US. Dutch agricultural and horticultural businesses are the best in the world and very active in the international arena. Their expertise and our scientific knowledge can reinforce each other.
For example, in the soft fruit sector, there is enormous waste of strawberries, for example, because the information to optimally coordinate the supply chain is lacking. A lot of the work is done manually and based on visual checks rather than by the targeted use of data. One project currently underway involves using AI to streamline production in the greenhouse all the way to the supermarket.”
“There is an enormous amount of expertise within TU Delft that can be used to help the horticulture sector move forward,” continues Roeland. “Take our fundamental knowledge of sustainable food production, for example, or AI and robotics. The Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge was a good example of what we are capable of. Our team beat the human growers with the help of AI and sensors. That’s a great achievement for science!
The horticultural sector holds plenty of interesting challenges for scientists. For example, can we develop sensors that can be inserted into a plant without damaging it?”
Why is innovation so important?
“There are two main reasons,” says Liselotte. “Firstly, we face the challenge of feeding a growing world population. This will require a more robust and efficient food production system, all the more in view of the changing climate (water scarcity, hot and extreme weather) and the limited supply of agricultural experts and workers (the corona crisis has shown how dependent we are on seasonal labour). We also have to make the system more sustainable. Intensive agriculture is an important cause of the decline in biodiversity in the Netherlands. If we want to reverse this trend, we will need innovations that reduce the use of pesticides, prevent diseases and make crops more resistant to climate change, for example. One of TU Delft’s spin-offs deploys insect-hunting drones in greenhouses, an environmentally friendly way to control pests.”
“The unbelievable situation we are currently in has highlighted how important the food supply is,” says Roeland. “We have to make this system more efficient and sustainable. With our technical knowledge and expertise in the field of sensor technology, robotics and AI, TU Delft can make an important contribution to achieving this.”
How does TU Delft distinguish itself in the field of agricultural technology?
“Research relevant to agriculture and horticulture is conducted all over TU Delft: in fact, we are collaborating with no fewer than five faculties. We identified what TU Delft researchers are doing in our fields of application – agriculture, horticulture and food processing – and subsequently defined six key themes: Artificial Intelligence, Environmental Resources, Robotic Systems, Sensor Technology, Smart Systems and Sustainable Energy.
Horti- and agriculture are still largely unfamiliar terrains for TU Delft. Our task is to bring the various knowledge domains together and form a new platform for these sectors. For example, at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering they have developed a technique that allows small drones to explore an area fully autonomously. The researchers asked us if we knew a possible application for their technology. They are now deploying their drones in greenhouses to improve our understanding of how crops grow.”
So you also need to increase your visibility?
“Yes,” agrees Liselotte. “We have everything in house, but not everyone knows that yet. With the exception of our existing contacts, much of the sector is unaware of the many TU Delft projects that could potentially be relevant to greenhouse horticulture. At the same time, for many of their scientific questions TU Delft is not the first party horticultural businesses turn for answers.
Additionally, we see that international technology companies are becoming active in the agri sector. If the Netherlands wants to maintain its leading position in the field of agri-innovations, it is important for us to combine our strengths. The AgTech Institute is TU Delft’s way of doing this. If it’s up to me, in five years’ time, TU Delft will be the go-to partner for technological solutions in the field of AgTech.”
I also want to increase our visibility so we can inspire a new generation of engineers. Few young people come to TU Delft with the plan to use the knowledge they gain in the field of robotics, AI or energy for applications in agriculture and horticulture. But technology is booming in this sector, so I hope more students will choose a future in agricultural technology.Roeland
How is the cooperation with Wageningen University & Research (WUR)?
“It’s good,” says Roeland. “I myself worked in Wageningen, so I know the university well. We are constantly looking for projects in which we can strengthen and complement each other. For example, Wageningen is very strong in research into how plants react physiologically to environmental factors. That’s knowledge that we can put to good use in the design of autonomous greenhouses.
Another example is WUR’s research into how amphibians stay attached to slippery and wet surfaces. TU Delft used this knowledge to create a gripper for smooth and soft surfaces. We are currently working on a new project in which an industrial partner will use this technique for raspberry picking.”
Most physiological research on plants takes place in Wageningen. “But in recent years we have seen an increase in demand for technical innovations in agriculture and horticulture, and that is precisely TU Delft’s strong point. Liselotte, so we complement each other perfectly.”
How does the AgTech Institute cooperate with the business community?
“That’s where we can really prove our added value,” says Liselotte. “Scientists are perfectly capable of designing fundamental research projects. We as an institute can make a difference by forging links between science and industry. The resulting projects are less fundamental in nature and more focused on application in practice. We look carefully at what businesses have to offer in terms of knowledge, facilities and expertise.”
“A good example is the development of an electronic nose which can smell out pests such as aphids at an early stage, so that we can intervene before they can cause any damage. For this project, the knowledge about these insects is being provided by one business, while another is manufacturing a suitable chip. TU Delft is studying how all these elements can be combined into a sensor: an electronic nose.”
Liselotte, as the business developer, are you the go-to person for the business community?
“Yes,” says Liselotte, “the institute’s role is to forge links. We bring together researchers and businesses in the technical industry and agricultural sector. The most important thing is to ensure that the goals of the various parties are harmonised and that they speak the same language so that we can maximise the impact of every project.”