A MILITARY man who developed drone technology for the defence sector has used his skills to support more sustainable food production. 

James Willcox, from Devon, has developed an AI-powered device which uses thermal imaging to detect lameness in dairy cows at a much earlier stage than current methods are capable of. 

After a caeer in the army, followed by a role developing drone technology for the defence sector, James took a masters in Agri-Tech at Cirencester University. It was here he came up with the idea for the device.

James, who runs a smallholding in South Molton, won an Agri-Tech accelerator grant from Devon County Council. He then developed the first prototype of his hoof monitor device. 

James said: “I have always been interested in high welfare, sustainable food production and, after a career in the army and the defence sector, I decided to take the leap and follow my passion.

“As well as having serious welfare implications, lameness costs the dairy industry £53.5 million annually, and is second only to mastitis in terms of its economic impact. Beyond the immediate welfare and economic benefits of treating lameness sooner, hoof monitor could also contribute to a reduction in production inefficiencies and associated carbon emissions per litre of milk produced, helping to make milk production more sustainable.”

He has now teamed up on the next stage of development with the Agri-EPI Centre and software company Rhyze Softworks, supported by a grant from Innovate UK.

According to the Agri-EPI Centre, earlier detection of lameness means a farmer can intervene sooner, which helps to improve cow welfare, reduces lameness-related economic losses, and reduces carbon emmissions per litre of milk produced. 

The hoof monitor is fitted to a cattle race inside a milking parlour and analyses cows’ legs and feet as they walk past.

The device is currently being tested and developed with the 200-strong herd at Agri-EPI’s Southwest Dairy Development Centre in Somerset. It will later be trialled on larger commercial farms in the South West.

Agri-EPI Centre's head of dairy, Robert Morrison, added: “Hoof Monitor is unique in that it is using thermal imaging in lameness detection in a way that, until now, has not been an affordable option on commercial farms. This new approach enables us to detect increases in leg temperature, indicating increased blood flow - a clear sign of a problem in the cow’s foot - so that action can be taken earlier.

"As a robotic system working 24/7, it has the potential to make detecting and treating lameness much quicker than current methods, meaning its potential impact is very strong.”