Blue Radix regularly works with students from TU Delft on technically challenging projects. About a year ago, the Agtech Institute of Delft University of Technology was founded to strengthen the links between TU Delft and agriculture & horticulture. Liselotte de Vries is Business Developer at the Agtech Institute. In this interview, we ask her how TU Delft is involved in AI applications and what initiatives they are taking to make students enthusiastic about the greenhouse industry.
As a Business Developer, Liselotte links the challenges encountered by (inter)national agricultural and horticultural businesses to scientific solutions developed by researchers at TU Delft. Liselotte also plays an active role in national partnerships, such as 4TU (Universities of Delft, Wageningen, Twente and Eindhoven). In this role, the value created from the complementarity of the ‘grey tech’ in Delft and the ‘green tech’ in Wageningen and the business community is addressed.
How is TU Delft involved in greenhouse horticulture?
“The goal of the Agtech Institute is to create a direct relationship between the university and agriculture and horticulture. This involves initiating research projects, building partnerships for co-innovation and identifying talent for the agriculture and horticulture sector,” says Liselotte.
“The institute has been around for 1 year and is growing fast. In fact, there were already many different partnerships with agriculture and horticulture, but they were not visible enough or optimally aligned. The institute will change that. It will also provide more ‘face’, strategy and a contact point internally (TU researchers) and externally (private sector and other knowledge institutions).
There are many interesting issues emerging from agriculture and horticulture. Also international issues. Obviously, we cannot address all these issues. It is not the task of TU Delft to work on optimizing and improving the existing. We are committed to working together to develop new techniques, address technical challenges for which the technological solution simply does not yet exist and the way is still (partly) unknown. So, the issues are judged by the amount of new technology at scientific level. When a project idea emerges, for example when a private partner and a research field find each other, the search for possible additional partners and a funding structure (public and/or private) begins. Once the project plan and agreement has been finalized, it is transferred to a faculty and the institute steps back. Good examples of projects are the development of ultrasound and miniaturized microwave sensors in specific measurements in plants.”
How does TU Delft look at the application of AI in daily processes in greenhouse horticulture?
“AI (artificial intelligence) is a clear solution to problems and issues in greenhouse farming. It is currently being proven, by parties like Blue Radix. TU Delft is also contributing to this. For example, TU Delft was part of the winning team of the second ‘Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge’. AI can clearly create new value and contributes to solutions against food waste through optimizations in the chain.
At the TU Delft, we are working on AI in a broad sense. So not just for a specific sector. The TU Delft is proficient in AI as a new technology and is certainly working on applications for agriculture and horticulture, but it will never limit itself to the professionalization of one sector. TU Delft is very good at fundamental robotics and AI because it is developing in a broad sense and not just for greenhouse horticulture. You could call this ‘cross sector learning and development’. TU is and will remain a technical university, which learns by cooperating with all sorts of different sectors. TU provides the new knowledge and the new technological solutions. In partnership with the sector, it creates an application in agriculture and greenhouse horticulture.”
What initiatives are you taking to get students involved or even excited about greenhouse horticulture?
“The AgTech Institute was founded a year ago, and the number of research proposals has tripled in that time. This creates more connection between TU Delft, researchers and students and the sector. Besides initiating research projects, we also allocate assignments from companies to students. This benefits both parties. Particularly in large projects, it is interesting to link companies and students for sub projects. Unfortunately, this is only possible to a limited extent. As a university, we are obviously not an employment agency so we need to find a balance in this. We are also working hard on giving information and lectures. And it is important that companies continue to present themselves to students and not just with respect to individual assignments.”
Do you notice that students’ attitudes towards greenhouse horticulture have changed?
“Student attitudes to the greenhouse industry are slowly changing. We are doing well as a sector globally. However, communication from the sector to this talent is an important point of attention. The image of ‘high tech’ among companies in the greenhouse horticulture sector is different from the image of ‘high tech’ as seen by students at TU Delft. We must bring together greenhouse horticulture and technology even more. They are very different worlds, which still often speak different languages.”
“A certain willingness to take risks is also needed to develop new knowledge in the sector. New technologies simply take more time and require a longer-term strategy and investment. Compared to other sectors and with exceptions, there are fewer large R&D departments in greenhouse horticulture. One solution is to collaborate on common goals with the universities, possibly supplemented by public funding.”
In what ways would TU Delft like to collaborate even more around AI in greenhouse horticulture?
“There is continuous coordination between the institute, national science agendas, the government and the industry around the need for new technical developments. The key is to bring together new algorithms (science) and application. TU Delft can help resolve an ‘unsolvable’ problem. We have experts for everything, so the door is always open. For example, one question from the sector was how to detect threats to plants at an early stage in the air using a ‘digital nose’ (https://www.tudelft.nl/agtech/projects/tiny-smart-e-nose). That doesn’t yet exist and we can work on that.
In the meantime, we are also continuing to develop ultrasound, for example. This is pitched by TU and gradually adopted by the sector. The business sector then develops cases for this technology. Sometimes the sector needs to ‘get used’ to new technology, but that’s only natural.”
Do you have a tip or advice for Blue Radix?
“Ask yourself the question: what do we need in 5-10 years’ time? The TU’s strength lies in new technological innovations, the solution for which is simply a bit further away in time. It is good to take action now for the longer term. Think in terms of a technological vision and make that negotiable with us as an institute.”