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Explore a career as an Operations Director who works with drone technology

This blog explores what a career as an Operations Director in the agrifood industry looks like.

17 Apr 2023
EIT Food West
6 min reading time

Our EIT Food Day in the Life series is an educational resource aimed at young people and professionals who are interested in the agrifood job market. We profile a wide range of careers in the agrifood sector, interviewing professionals to find out what their job is like, why it is important, and how you could take up the profession.

You will learn:

  • What a typical day is like as an Operations Director
  • The main responsibilities in this career
  • Why this industry matters to our wider food system
  • How you can take up this career path

Meet Oli Hilbourne, an Operations Director at Outfield, an agritech startup based in the UK. Outfield has created an orchard management system to help farmers to forecast their fruit yield. By combining innovative machine learning and drone technology, they are helping farmers to oversee the lifecycle of fruit in their orchards to increase efficiency, profitability and sustainability.

At Outfield, Oli is the Operations Director, and he is responsible for developing, testing the optimising the drone technology used on orchards. Oli tells us about his job as an Operations Director, and how you can train to become one too.

What does a day as an Operations Director involve?

At Outfield, the role of an Operations Director involves the development and optimisation of the machine learning platform and drone technology created by the startup. On a typical day, Oli may visit food producers at an orchard to show them how the technology works and how it can be used to forecast yield. To do this, Oli will fly the drone over the orchard which counts the apples and collect the required data need to predict yield. Once the data is collected, it is then processed within 24 hours and shared with farmers, so they can make informed decisions about their fruit yields.

When he isn’t visiting food producers, Oli is working with this team of machine learning engineers and software engineers, to ensure that Outfield’s orchard management system is operating as it should be and to advise on any issues that arise. Crucially, Oli ensures that the data captured by the drone technology is analysed and that the insights are shared with their customers.

Why do we need people who work in Operations?

At Outfield, the role of an Operations Director is important because the person in this job is responsible for the team of engineers and developers who operate the company’s orchard management platform.

In most industries, an Operations Director manages all of activities involved in producing a company’s products and services. In Oli’s case, he needs to understand all of the activities involved in developing, managing and optimising his company’s machine learning platform and be able to guarantee the platform delivers the data required by its customers.

In general, people in the role of an Operations Director have excellent leadership and management skills. This is because they oversee a company’s activities and bring help to bring the final product or service to life. In Oli’s role, an understanding agritech is crucial to understand the mechanics of Outfield’s machine learning platform and how it is used in an agriculture context.

Innovative technologies are crucial to help the agriculture industry to be able to produce high volumes of food sustainably. Therefore, we require skilled people in the role of Operation such as Oli, who can help to manage the activities needed to produce a good or service that delivers on food systems innovation.

How does your technology benefit farmers?

The machine learning platform created by Outfield provides accurate information about a farm’s orchard, to help farmers make data-driven decisions about how to manage their orchard successfully.

Outfield’s orchard management system provides four main benefits for farmers. These are as follows:

  • Yield Estimation – Farmers can forecast yield based on data collected by the drones. For example, they can compare high and low performing areas of each orchard.
  • Blossom Mapping – Farmers can analyse blossom variability across their orchards to manage it and to optimise the number of grade-A fruit at harvest.
  • Crop Load Management – Drone technology can count the number of fruits per tree and help farmers to understand fruit loading and variability across their orchard.
  • Orchard Optimisation – Data collected by Outfield’s machine learning platform helps farmers to make changes to their orchards such as, knowing which areas of the orchard to prioritise for maximum yield.

For Oli, he’s aware that farmers face many pressures, from rising labour costs to extreme weather events impacting crops. To deliver value to customers, Oli has worked with his team to ensure that their company’s orchard management solution is compatible with off-the-shelf drones.

Oli states that: “The real innovation that Outfield is bringing is that we are trying to do all of our surveying with off the shelf drones.”

This means that farmers can purchase an off-the-shelf drone based on their budget and preference, knowing it will be compatible with Outfield’s technology.

Furthermore, Oli is passionate about helping farmers to reduce food loss and waste. During the production of apples, food waste can occur when apple fruits die because of disease or when retailers reject apples for failing to meet quality standards, or when there is too much yield versus demand. By helping farmers to forecast yield, farmers will know how many apples they will have and when and make informed decisions to reduce the likelihood of food loss and waste on-farm.

As Oli says, “One of the big things that we provide for farmers is we tell them how much crop, how many tons of apples, they are expecting to get from their orchard that year.”

How can I get a job working in Operations?

To pursue a career in operations, there are different pathways to explore. For example, you could study a business degree. This should help you to gain the knowledge and skills to be able to understand how a business operates and how to run a successful business. If you are passionate about a particular industry, technical certifications are also a fantastic way to expand your knowledge and help to advance your career.

Work experience is another pathway to consider as it can offer on-the-job-training and it provides a real-life understanding of what a career in operations is like. Seeking opportunities in small companies could be a good place to start as these companies can offer a diverse set of responsibilities as well as career progression. However, large companies are also likely to offer a range of opportunities for career advancement.

To succeed in the role of an Operations Director, you may want to consider developing your transferable skills such as leadership, organisation, decision making, problem solving, and data entry. These skills can be developed in everyday life.

What is the best part of the job?

Oli enjoys the idea of the unknown. He enjoys creating new things and seeing them come to life. He also says that he really enjoys flying the drones.

“I think agritech and agriculture as a wider sector is exciting to get into especially over the next few years. A lot of the sectors in the industry are really digitizing quickly. There is a lot of robotic systems and a lot of surveillance systems coming along making the industry more efficient. It is going to be an exciting space to work in for the next few years.”

Oli describes his job in three words: Apples, Drones and Technology!

About EIT Food’s Day in the series

EIT Food’s Day in the Life Series is a video series that explores the variety of careers that our agrifood system has to offer. The aim of the series is to raise awareness of the range of high-skilled and highly rewarding jobs that the food and farming sector has to offer and inspire younger generations to consider one of these careers for themselves. This series is part of EIT Food’s Youth Mission programme.

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