• Research

Agri-tech innovation in China with NAU and the Newton Network +

Optimising timing of fertiliser and chemical application based on agricultural aerial imagery data.

Project summary.

Led by: Zhou Group

Start date: March 2018

End date: March 2019

Duration: 1 year

Grants: Newton Agri-Tech in China Network+ Award

Value: £61,715, including BBSRC subsidy

China manages to feed almost a quarter of the world’s population on less than one tenth of the world’s cultivated land. Though a remarkable achievement, the excessive use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that supports this productivity has led to a number of problems affecting the soil, the environment and surrounding natural ecosystems. Moving forwards, it is paramount that such chemicals are applied more rationally and effectively in order to maintain China’s long term economic growth and stability.

This project, a collaboration between Earlham Institute and Nanjing Agricultural University, will apply and develop automated aerial image analysis of fields using drones and light aircraft. Building upon the existing AirSurf platform, the project will help the agri-food sector to better estimate the appropriate timing for chemical application during the growing season.


This innovative analytic technology will help resolve real-world problems in food security and precision agriculture; initially benefiting local agricultural authorities in the Jiangsu province through local agronomic demonstration centres and cultivation experts, and native farmers.

Long-term, the project will apply AirSurf to industrial applications to further support the Agri-Food sector; sharing invaluable expertise, knowledge and software analytic platforms in key areas of crop research including phenotyping, breeding, cultivation, agricultural practices, and Agri-Tech innovation for better wheat.

Specifically, the four month project will focus on building a novel image analysis algorithm that identifies crop key growth stages using machine learning-based algorithms. Building upon the AirSurf platform, the new algorithm will be integrated into the AirSurf software - finally being tested and validated in China on demonstration sites at NAU, as well as during the Field Day of Precision Crop Cultivation for Jiangsu province.


Nanjing Agricultural University

Through this Newton Network+ project in collaboration with Dr Zhou at the Earlham Institute, the two research groups will continuously develop our strengths in precision agriculture and information technologies. We aim to introduce the latest development in computing sciences to crop growth monitoring research, based on which we will create novel approaches to reliably measure key growth stages and predict yield production for wheat. Our ultimate target is to promote Agri-Tech innovations and modernise agriculture in both China and the UK.

Impact statement.

This project will benefit and help modernise Agri-Crop and Agri-Tech sectors in both China and the UK. In particular, for Agri-Food Research & Development in China, our work can support the establishment of a smart, sustainable and adaptable agricultural system - empowering the country’s productivity and sustainability in crop improvement and agricultural practices.

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