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    Tributes paid to former Harper Adams Professor

    Posted 11 June

    Professor Simon Blackmore

    Tributes have been paid to a former Harper Adams Professor whose death was announced today.

    On his appointment in 2011, Professor Simon Blackmore was the first Harper Adams Professor of Agricultural Engineering.

    His varied career at that point had taken him from a small farm in South Wales to Africa, where he worked as a volunteer in Nigeria and Lesotho and a Project Engineer in Sierra Leone.

    His academic work saw him move from Agricultural Engineering Studies at Silsoe College to become a lecturer in ICT and Precision Farming at the same institution.

    He then became a Professor of Agricultural Engineering at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University in Denmark, and the Manager of European FutureFarm project in Greece, before taking up his post at Harper Adams.

    Bringing an already formidable reputation to his role as Professor of Agricultural Engineering, Professor Blackmore’s personal research aim was to improve Precision Agriculture by developing more intelligent machines and processes and through making crop production more efficient and sustainable.

    His new role drew upon his global reputation as a key figure in the research and development of agricultural technology systems, including investigations into how satellite and information technologies can be used to improve farming practices and the design of mobile outdoor robots.

    In his inaugural lecture, Professor Blackmore explained the importance of new technologies in tackling the challenge of global food security, particularly in the light of volatile climatic events that can make the use of large machinery difficult. He proposed the use of smaller agricultural robots as part of the solution.

    In 2012, Harper Adams launched the National Centre for Precision Farming, with a mission to facilitate the knowledge exchange required to bring “smart” agricultural machinery into wider and more productive use in UK, and global, farming. Professor Blackmore was the inaugural Director of the Centre and was committed to sharing its knowledge globally.

    He toured China and Malaysia show-casing the future of farming; on-farm drone safety training was delivered in conjunction with BASIS; and the initial USER-PA project ended with a demonstration of Pomona, the autonomous orchard tractor.

    In 2016 Professor Blackmore handed the reins of the Engineering Department to its new Head, Parmjit Chima - but continued with Harper Adams as Head of Robotics and Automation for the then Agri EPI-Centre, one of four national agritech centres created by the Government, and maintaining his role as Director of the National Centre for Precision Farming.

    His activities where many and varied, from international work on precision agriculture - at one point holding seven chairs around the world - to advising the producers of the BBC Radio 4 drama the Archers on mapping and drone technology.

    In early 2018, alongside former Harper Adams Vice-Chancellor Dr David Llewellyn, Professor Blackmore was presented with a 2017 Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Further and Higher Education, from the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, at Buckingham Palace.

    The Prize was awarded in recognition of the university’s pioneering work in developing agricultural technologies, and associated alternative farming methods, to deliver global food security.

    In 2018, Professor Blackmore gave extensive evidence on precision agriculture whilst on a panel feeding into the Industry 4.0 – The Future of Wales report. 

    He told the committee the UK was in a good position to lead the robotic agriculture industry, saying, “The technology that we’ve got in the UK is as good as anywhere else in the world, if not better. We’re one of the leading areas.”

    Professor Blackmore retired in 2019, becoming an emeritus professor.

    Asked to consider his role in connection to Precision Farming, he said: “I consider myself a multidisciplinary systems thinker with a good appreciation of how novel technologies should work in practice. I get a deep sense of satisfaction from designing and building things.

    “My latest contribution to science is the improved understanding of how robotics and smart machines can be adapted to serve the needs of modern agriculture, thus making the whole crop production system significantly more efficient by using what I now call intelligently-targeted inputs.

    “My vision is that these technologies can not only improve current agricultural practices by using less energy, but will also lead to a new system of smarter machines that can help feed the world under increasing environmental pressures.”

    Professor Peter Mills, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams, was on the panel team who recruited Professor Blackmore.

    He said: “Over a period of time he created the environment, guidance and mentoring that led to the Hands-Free Hectare, laser weeding and robotic strawberry harvesting.

    “Simon was truly an inspirational platform speaker, probably the best of his generation, and was passionate about how precision farming could transform crop production.

    “He frequently quoted figures suggesting that 90 per cent of the energy used each year for soil cultivation was necessary simply to repair the damage that large tractors had caused the previous year.

    “He foresaw a world where inputs, such as herbicide application, could be reduced by 99 per cent through precision application. He predicted that globally, most efficiency gains would be made in small to medium sized farming enterprises.

    “He always got a gasp or chuckle when he said that tractors had reached their maximum size because their size was determined by the dimensions of railway tunnels through which newly manufactured tractors had to be transported. 

    “Simon was frequently invited to present his vision including to wider audiences, such as The Royal Society and the Oxford Farming Conference. We also asked Simon to host important visitors for visits to Harper Adams and the National Centre for Precision Farming, including a succession of ministers.

    “As an aside, I always knew that my timetable for site tours would be completely blown out of the water as Simon's vision was always utterly compelling to our visitors. I couldn't drag our visitors away!

    “He greatly valued his time with students, in particular the Masters students, who loved him.”

    Harper Adams Vice-Chancellor Professor Ken Sloan added: “It is with deep sadness that I learned of Simon’s death, especially coming so soon after he and his wife, Chrissy, had relocated to their new home in the South-West of England.

    “I knew of Simon’s reputation in technology and innovation before joining Harper Adams and could see the profound impact he had had on the University’s confidence and reputation in this area.

    “You can see how far this area of precision technology and automation has developed through Simon’s work, something in which we are continuing to invest. The University was honoured to see this work recognised through a Queen’s Anniversary Prize. 

    “Simon and Chrissy were quick to reach out to Dan and I on the news we were moving to Shropshire, and were amongst the first to welcome us to the County.  Simon showed us generosity and warmth and, with Chrissy, played a pivotal role in helping us to settle in those first few months.

    “I have been inspired by how many colleagues and former students have spoken with fondness about Simon and his contribution to the University and its reputation. 

    “We will find an appropriate way to acknowledge Simon and his contribution, with Chrissy and his many friends and supporters, at an appropriate point in the future.

    “Our priority now is to send our thoughts and messages of support to Chrissy and everyone who is saddened by the news of Simon’s death.”

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