All posts by Elizabeth Allen

Robots emerging as agricultural co-workers

fig1Advanced engineering could be the solution for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, as technology for producing service robots reaches maturity. An expert in robotics from the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, UK, will discuss the latest developments in the sector during Agri-Tech East’s ‘Pollinator’ event on 11th October 2016.

Professor Duckett, who leads the Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems, will present at the event – Robo-Cropping – The Potential for Precision Robotics in Agriculture – alongside Dr Andre Rosendo from the University of Cambridge and Professor Simon Blackmore from Harper Adams University.

Professor Duckett says that agricultural robotics bring benefits of reduced labour costs, economic sustainability, less waste and better use of natural resources. The technology has the potential to be deployed at any time of day and impact positively on the productivity and life quality of agricultural workers.

His Lincoln team, part of the University’s Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology, has been working on multiple projects in this area including 3D mapping techniques for improving the precision of agricultural sprayers and a new project in 3D imaging for broccoli harvesting, which is producing strong results and attracting interest from end users such as the Brassica Growers Association.

Professor Duckett said: “Already we can envisage agricultural robots that could perform multiple tasks, for example, inter-changeable tools would allow switching between tasks such as seeding, tillage, spraying and harvesting. You could also have robots for agriculture and food production that would perform other useful tasks at the same time such as surveillance, keeping a watchful eye on crops, livestock and expensive farm machinery, while carrying out their primary duties on the farm or in the factory.”

A number of machinery companies are investing in the technology and a project in 3D imaging for robotic weeding is currently being carried out with a local company, Garford Farm Machinery, world leaders in automated weeding equipment.

Professor Duckett believes that the underpinning technologies for robotic perception, learning and action are already reaching the required level of maturity to leave research laboratories. So what steps need to be taken to transition from lab to work on the farm or in the factory?

“The big challenge now is how to cross the so called ‘Valley of Death’ between the development of useful prototypes by researchers and the mass production of agricultural robots which are available to the farmer, “ he said. “We need investors to come forward and believe in what we are doing. There is also a need to convince farmers that we can produce robust and effective machines that can really do the job.”

Rather than full automation, Professor Duckett sees a future of environmentally friendly ‘robot helpers’: “Robot helpers will increase the productivity and life quality of agricultural workers and help to deliver the sustainable intensification of agriculture that will be needed to help feed a growing population while minimising the impact on the environment. Smart robots that run on battery power rather than fossil fuels could also be part of the solution for a cleaner, greener future.”

Professor Duckett, Dr Rosendo and Professor Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University are scheduled to speak at NIAB Park Farm, Cambridgeshire for the Agri-Tech East ‘Pollinator’ event on 11 October 2016: ‘Robo-Cropping – The Potential for Precision Robotics in Agriculture’.

Boxik – an addictive new mobile game from a trio of talented students

An addictive new mobile game developed by a trio of student programmers who teamed up at a one-day coding jam has been released across Apple and Android platforms.

Boxik is a retro style puzzler inspired by classic handheld games such as Tetris. Its simple but engrossing gameplay challenges players to spin a multi coloured cube to catch incoming objects of the corresponding hue – a task that requires surprisingly demanding mental and manual dexterity. With a synth-soaked 80s style soundtrack, the game is unforgiving for first-timers but quickly engrosses players determined to test their screen tapping talents to rack up higher and higher scores.

Firefrost Games

Boxik was designed and developed by Ryan Burton, Adam Walker and Neville King, all second year undergraduate students in the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, UK. The three teamed up at the University’s on-campus AppFest coding jam in October 2015, where they won a competition to propose a viable mobile application set by the University. The enterprising undergraduates have been working on the game alongside their studies ever since – launching their own company, called Firefrost Games, and website to bring their app to market.

One of the students Adam Walker, originally from Bridlington, said: “It has been great to work on this project together and to see it through the whole production process, from conception and design, to programming and launching to market. Previously when we have built games, it has been as part of jam and has only resulted in short, rough versions of our ideas. It is so exciting to see the final, polished version of our game and we are so pleased to be launching it to market.

“We’re really happy with the final result – Boxik is a very simple yet effective game and it is quite addictive! We designed it for people to play on the bus for example, when they have time to pass, and have found that it encourages players to compete with themselves to beat their top score. We feel Boxik fits extremely well with the current app market trend of effortless and uncomplicated games, which are proving very popular with people of all ages.”

Technology guru Jason Bradbury, who has taught the students in his lecturing role in Lincoln’s School of Computer Science, said: “It’s impressive to see a team of students develop a game so thoroughly from concept to release, handling all the work involved in getting an app out there and onto people’s devices. Just as importantly for the gamers among us, in Boxik they’ve created a good casual game with extremely simple gameplay. I’m very proud but not surprised at what they’ve achieved. Firefrost Games could be ones to watch.”

The game has also already secured a prestigious industry honour: winning a special achievement award from Rockstar Games – the company behind major game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto. Representatives of the global games company, which has a substantial base in the city, tested a pre-release version of the game as special guests at the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science End of Year Showcase in May.

Dr David Cobham, Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, said: “We are immensely proud of what Ryan, Adam and Neville have achieved in such a short space of time. Not only have they demonstrated exceptional coding skill and dedication to produce such a professional app, but they have also shown they have the ability to translate an idea into something people all over the world can download and enjoy.

“Throughout the process, they have worked together as a team and tackled the legal and licensing aspects of launching a business and bringing an app to market. Now they have a fully functioning and very exciting company to their name, and we look forward to seeing their future endeavours.”

Boxik is free to download for Apple and Android devices.

Scientists put final pieces into place for seeing cancer with protons

Scientists are currently in South Africa putting together a unique medical imaging platform which could improve treatment for millions of cancer sufferers by making proton therapy a viable option.

Members of the multi-national research team behind the PRaVDA (Proton Radiotherapy Verification and Dosimetry Applications) project, led by the University of Lincoln, UK, are now building the instrument that will produce for the first time detailed three-dimensional images of a patient’s anatomy using protons rather than x-rays.

To produce these Proton CT images, the world-first technology will use the same high energy particles that are used to destroy a tumour during proton therapy treatment.

Like x-rays, protons can penetrate tissue to reach deep tumours. However, compared to x-rays, protons cause less damage to healthy tissue in front of the tumour, and no damage at all to healthy tissue lying behind, which greatly reduces the side effects of radiation therapy.

Led by Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering Nigel Allinson MBE, the PRaVDA team aims to become the first in the world to produce clinical-quality Proton CT imagery. They are currently working near Cape Town at the South African National Cyclotron – a type of particle accelerator.

Professor Allinson said: “Proton therapy is an improved approach for treating challenging tumours especially in the head and neck, and near critical organs. It is likely to become the preferred radiotherapy method for most childhood cancers, as the unwanted exposure to radiation of healthy tissue is much reduced and so the risk of second cancers later in life is also much reduced.

“Having the ability to administer a high dose in a small region is the main underlying advantage of proton therapy, however accurate planning is absolutely essential to ensure that the dose does not miss the target tumour.”

Using protons to form an image of the patient will greatly improve the accuracy of proton therapy. Using current methods, there could be a discrepancy of up to 1cm in terms of where the proton beam hits and releases its energy, destroying cells, after passing through 20 cm of healthy tissue. By using Proton CT, this margin for error can be reduced to just a few millimetres.

The PRaVDA researchers believe that Proton CT will soon be used as part of the planning process for cancer patients, as well as during and after treatment.

“Imaging with protons is challenging, because the individual particles are randomly scattered as they pass through tissue,” Professor Allinson continued. “Millions of protons make up a single image and each particle has to be individually tracked from the point it enters the patient to the point where it leaves. The PRaVDA instrument is therefore one of the most complex medical instruments ever developed, but it is absolutely essential – the uncertainties in where the protons lose their energy and do damage to either tumour or healthy tissue will only be eliminated by using the same type of radiation to image and to treat.”

Proton therapy is rapidly gaining momentum as a cancer treatment around the world. The NHS will open two proton therapy centres in 2018, and up to another four private centres are also planned for the UK.

The PRaVDA consortium, funded by a £1.6 million translation grant from the Wellcome Trust and led by the University of Lincoln, consists of five UK universities, four UK NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts, University of Cape Town and IThemba LABS, South Africa, and Karolinska University Hospital, Sweden. PRaVDA in South Africa

Mobile robots could help the elderly live fuller lives


Mobile service robots developed by computer scientists at the University of Lincoln could soon be helping elderly people stay independent and active for longer.

A new international project will test the ability of robots to support our ageing populations by assisting residents of care homes in three European countries.

ENRICHME (ENabling Robot and assisted living environment for Independent Care and Health Monitoring of the Elderly) will see service robots integrated with smarthomes – residences which incorporate advanced automation systems to provide inhabitants with sophisticated monitoring and control functions – in order to provide round-the-clock feedback to carers and health professionals. This will enable people with mild cognitive impairments to live more independently, and the robots will also help with activities that can improve quality of life, such as exercise and social visits.

The project, which includes artificial intelligence and robotics experts at the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science, will include a large-scale evaluation where robots will be deployed within the extra-care homes of LACE Housing Association in the UK, to care homes in Greece and to elderly people’s own homes in Poland, for one year.

Principal Investigator Dr Nicola Bellotto from the University of Lincoln said: “The system will build on recent advances in mobile service robotics and ambient assisted living to help people improve health and wellbeing. From a technological point of view there will be an intelligent interactive robot that is integrated with a smarthome, communicating with a network of care givers and relatives. This will be of particular benefit to those people who have mild cognitive impairments, for example older people who are still physically healthy but may have early symptoms of dementia.”

ENRICHME will enable caregivers and professional staff to identify evolving trends of cognitive impairments and to detect possible emergencies. This includes monitoring sudden changes in mood which might indicate deterioration, or the need for family or health services to step in.

Dr Bellotto added: “If the robot detects that the mood of the person is particularly low, it might suggest some kind of game or interaction with relatives. It could record information on how the mood changes and provide professional staff with feedback over a period of time, which would be very useful when studying the evolution of particular cognitive impairments.”

The robots will also be programmed to identify individual people in order to provide personalised services for elderly people living with others. New research in the field of adaptive human-robot interaction (HRI) will provide tools for the robots to support cognitive stimulation and social inclusion, which improve over time by learning from and adapting to the state of the user.

Hazel Ashmore, Project Lead Officer for LACE Housing, said: “Our focus at LACE Housing is on doing everything possible to enhance and maintain an older person’s independence and wellbeing, whatever their circumstances.  This is an exciting opportunity to explore the potential benefits of assistive technology, particularly the introduction of robots in this case, to complement our usual operations. We look forward to working alongside the University of Lincoln and with colleagues from other European countries so that we can evaluate and learn more about, and so that our residents may benefit from, the use of such technology in the future.”

ENRICHME includes multi-disciplinary research in geriatrics, gerontology and gero-technology, enabling further studies in social sciences and neuropsychology.

The project is funded with a 4 million Euro grant from Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for 2014-2020, of which 540,000 Euros have been assigned to support research at the University of Lincoln.