By Aidan Connolly
The Green Revolution is remembered by scientists and those involved in feeding the planet with admiration and awe. But how did Norman Borlaug really save one billion people from starvation? Borlaug’s genius wasn’t to embrace a single technology but an ability to see how they could fit together. Today’s crop producers face a similar problem: A tidal wave of modern technologies threaten to engulf them, and the confusion this causes risk them not being implemented at all.
Today’s myriad of technologies is creating a ‘data-grab’ like previous ‘land-grabs’ as technology providers seek to capture and control farm data to secure their future. This desire to ‘own’ the data makes farmers feel naturally cautious about which technology company to work with. With so many traditional and start-ups active in the space how can growers find the right fit? Do we need to wait for a digital era Nelson Borlaug to create an overall approach, holistic, root and branch, use of technologies that is both effective and profitable for producers?
The need for modern technologies is clear; the lack of qualified farm labor, especially for fruit and vegetable harvests, is a global issue. The importance and timing of nutrition and irrigation of the plants, with unpredictable weather patterns, the role of soil and the billions of microbes that live within it and how they interact with plant growth and disease resistance, The era of precision management for plants, allied to precision delivery of nutrients requires precise information.
But understanding what types of technologies are out there, and how is the first step to knowing what’s next.
Drones already helped farmers monitor crops, assess field health, irrigate and GPS mapping for over a decade. 33% of farmers report using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle), so startup companies are equipping newer operating models with imaging sensors such as NIR (Near Infra-Red) and thermal infrared, for use in plant counting, water management, erosion analysis and yield forecasting. Drone models such as the DJI Inspire 1 and SenseFly eBee not only help identify dry spots in the field or need improvement but can calculate the vegetation index and its heat signature. Other drones such as the PrecisionHawk Lancaster 5 and Honeycomb AgDrone are primarily used for crop scouting.
Combined with platforms such as FieldAgent aerial images can be turned into valuable information such as population analysis, weed mapping and 3D map imaging. Similar image analysis software includes Micasense with Atlas, DJI Zenmuse XT with DroneDeploy, Slant Range, and Agribotix. The impressive Yamaha RMAX has covered 2.4 million acres of farmland in Japan with pesticide and fertilizer application. Newer model DJI Agras MG-1 can carry up to 10 kg of liquid pesticide and fertilizer and spray up to 7-10 acres an hour, about 40-60 times faster than manual spraying.
Production of fruits, vegetables and even flowers face severe challenges of labor availability. Harvesting, picking, autonomous mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying and thinning; Developments in Robot technology to address this has been exponential. BoniRob, Rowbot, AgBot 11, See & Spray Robot and Robocrop all provide detailed monitoring and perform tasks like weeding and fertilizing.
For hydroponic and indoor farming, Flux IoT “Eddy” monitors pH levels, temperature, relative humidity and detect contaminants. Growers can even use an app to instruct the robot on specifications for produce such as calories, vitamins, flavor and appearance.
Vineyards are also utilizing the potential of robots. Wall-Ye autonomously prunes vines, removes unproductive shoots and collects data on the health of the soil, grapes and vine stocks. Pellenc has developed a common grape harvesting system that can remove 99% of the leaves and other unwanted debris picked in vineyards. The European Union’s Clever Robots for Crops project is focused on robotic grape, sweet pepper and apple harvesting.
The back breaking work of strawberry picking is being solved by a robot built by Harvest CROO Robotics which can pick eight acres in just 24 hours, potentially replacing 30 pickers. Spain-based Agrobot harvester determines fruit ripeness and harvest strawberries either with short-stem or have the stem and calyx removed entirely. Israeli FFRobotics uses soft robots to achieve the same level of precision and gentleness as that of human pickers.
Sensors are becoming smaller and more accurate, but they are also more diverse and differentiated, less expensive and easier to use. There are numerous applications for sensors in crop production and no shortage of companies to choose from! Not only can sensors provide soil analysis data including fertilizer, pesticide and water needs, but they can deliver the intended application without any supervision from the farmer. The ability to measure the needs of crops in real time enables farmers to increase yields and production.
Farmer’s relationship with weather is tempestuous. Farmers rely on rain and sun, but too much can destroy a harvest. Relying on rain forecasts can also be detrimental; over-irrigation can be costly, cause soil erosion and nutrient leaching. A network of sensors such as those by Pycno relay field conditions, weather forecasts and potential plant stress factors including disease outbreak and insect growth. Notifications are sent directly to the user’s phone, reducing the chances of these factors having a detrimental effect on crops. Tule Technologies evaluates water loss and advises the most appropriate irrigation schedule. Irrometer Watermark 200 SS, Decagon 5TE Sensor and HSTI HydraSCOUT Probe. Phytech do as well, but not through the soil. Measuring the diameter of the plant stalk indicates stress and water needs. CropX sell sensors that monitor moisture, salinity, temperature or electrical conductivity. Teralytic does too as well as for aeration and respiration.
Several companies are venturing into pest and fertilizer management. Startup company Acunity Agriculture’s field sensors allow not only monitor soil and water conditions, but also gauge pest development and predict best harvest time. Delicate crops such as those produced in orchards and vineyards may benefit from FieldIn and Sample6, as both offer pest management from collected data to reduce overall use of pesticides. MagGrow, has created a spraying technology that magnetizes water, fertilizers or pesticides to achieve a 70% reduction in drift and 20-40% increase in coverage.
Focusing on indoor cultivation, Grownetics’s automatic system provides tracking of each individual plant into a high-resolution 3D mapping system. Particularly beneficial to larger producers, it can also be customized to provide task management, workflow training and coordinating and auditing documentation. Bosch is joining the greenhouse game with Plantect, a sensor designed to forecast plant diseases with 92% accuracy.
More unusual sensor companies include Ceres Imaging’s sensor which measures light wavelengths unseen by humans. This provides information on crop health including fungal detection, water shortages and nutrient deficiencies, and provides analytics to determine trends. Amber Agriculture, a relatively new startup, created a pellet sensor that can be spread in storage bins to collect data on grain moisture. When this data is interpreted using cloud-based algorithms, suggestions can be made to prevent spoilage and grain loss helping farmers get the biggest return on yields.
3D printing technology applications in agriculture can be creating parts for small farms and gardens, such as Farmshelf, to producing tools used for all kinds of farming for both urban and rural areas. Italian startup Hexagro Urban Farming uses 3D printing to create the connectors for their plant modules, allowing for adaptability and scalability.
3D printing is especially useful to rural farmers, particularly in remote areas where availability of parts and access to equipment can significantly impact a farmer’s ability to produce and harvest crops. Proximity Designs is a socially-focused enterprise trying to bring high quality farming equipment to local farmers in Myanmar. Working with MakerBot, who donated a 3D printer to the cause, the company was able to print prototype farming equipment made of aluminum. This collaboration has helped Proximity Designs be faster and more versatile in their offerings to local farmers, giving them the access to new technologies they might not have seen otherwise.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Tractors revolutionized farming. Now tractors themselves are undergoing their own revolution and getting a lot “smarter.”
First seen in 2012, autonomous tractors were not designed to replace farm work, but to change the way a farmer runs the operation, increasing efficiencies in time and management. Equipped with technology that combines radio navigation with smart hardware that uses artificial intelligence (AI).
CNH Industrial’s concept of an autonomous tractor can be monitored and controlled through a desktop or tablet. Data on seeding rate, fuel levels and engine speed are recorded and can be referenced later. John Deere’s latest tractor, the S700 combine, comes with autonomous features but still requires a human in the cab. For those that can’t afford a brand-new tractor, Autonomous Tractor Corporation takes existing tractors and adds autonomously technology to them.
Sensors also incorporate AI, including many of those listed previously. Arable Mark, a smart crop monitoring device that can also be used as a weather station, analyzes precipitation, evapotranspiration, radiation and plant growth. Algorithms predict future potential based on past and current information.
Other applications for AI exist such as the Farmer’s Business Network, a big data company that connects over 3,400 small farms with open data about yields of different varieties and supply prices so they can compete with larger operations. Successful Farming has taken Amazon’s AI (“Alexa”) concept to farming, allowing farmers to get updates on weather, agriculture news briefings through a chat box.
VR is a computer technology that combines physical spaces, realistic images, sounds and other sensations. The applications in agriculture are primarily in the area of education, both for consumers and training employees. Training in this way is safer than a real environment and can reduce costs in materials and personnel (thought VR technology itself isn’t very cheap yet!)
Using virtual reality new employees can be trained in a classroom setting on how machines work, instruction on its mechanics and what to do if it breaks down. Dow AgroSciences plans to develop a training app to immerse users in a virtual reality farm, showing various scenarios faced by agricultural workers.
Consumers lack of understanding of where their food comes from represents real challenges for farmers. VR can allows people to see where and how things are grown, harvested and processed. FarmVR aims to do just this by showing what it’s like to be a farmer.
Augmented reality is the intermediary between virtual reality and actual reality. The technology has not developed in crops but has the potential to offer many of the same characteristics, such as education and training as VR in a more hands on way.
By combining a cloud computing system, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, farmAR’s mobile app allows producers to make notes or take pictures of fields with the ability to recall that information in a way that allows immediate side by side comparison. The cloud system automatically collects the latest satellite observation data of the land and the images are then processed to show areas that need irrigation, pest control or disease management.
Vaderstad AR is an AR app that enables farmers and potential clients of this farm machinery company to test and experience their machinery without having to get behind the wheel. The app works with a number of triggers; when a camera is pointed at one of these triggers in the brochure then a visual example is displayed, such as how a seed meter on a planter works and how it delivers precision at high speeds. Future Farm Technologies in combination with ARE1 has a contract to help build their augmented reality platform brand for the cannabis industry, hoping to connect producers, distributors and consumers into one platform.
Blockchain is a technology that creates a virtual ledger of assets and transactions that cannot be tampered or hacked. This ledger allows for peer-to-peer transactions of currency or commodities which can improve food safety, traceability, transaction costs and opening new markets. This ensures that from farm to market, consumers can pinpoint problems quickly in the event of a food safety outbreak. The “buying local” food trend is because consumers know exactly where their food is coming from, and they know that it is fresh. But what if we could do this at scale?
Ripe.io aims to answer this question. By designing a radically transparent digital food supply chain, ripe.io harnesses an unprecedented food quality network mapping the journey of food. Their goal is to transform the food system narrative by working with every actor along the food supply chain, to help prevent food fraud and false labeling. AgriDigital is also creating a more transparent supply chain by applying blockchain to the grain trade, with a goal of expanding into other commodities like cotton.
AgUnity is trying to open new markets to farmers in developing countries through blockchain. Small farmers and co-ops are unable to deliver to better markets, rarely have access to insurance or banking, and are selling goods below market prices due to limited access to the market. This puts these countries at a serious disadvantage on a global scale. Blockchain eliminates the need for a middleman, creating a “seat at the table” for these small farmers.
Pipeline Foods focuses on increasing the supply of sustainably produced commodities, like organic foods. Organic farmers keep detailed information about production and blockchain can be used to verify the accuracy of organically produced foods. They provide solutions to connect the dots for farming partners and end users of organic grains and ingredients.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) connects technologies together for cloud-based analytics or algorithmic interpretation. Sensors, robots, and drones all work independently but the data they gather can be sent to the cloud to be accessed by a laptop, iPhone, tablet or other smart device.
An example of IoT in use is Plantix, a mobile crop advisory app for farmers, which acts as a smart crop assistant on your phone. Plantix analyzes images taken from the field to detect more than 240 plant pests and diseases automatically. Access to a community dialogue allows users to exchange knowledge about crop cultivation, disease control and best practices. AgCode helps winegrowers track harvests, analyze field conditions and provides financial reporting. IntelinAir uses real-time aerial imagery to provide analytics and insight from top agronomists for better decision making. AGERpoint produces nut and citrus orchard management software that uses satellite data on plant height, trunk diameter, canopy diameter and canopy density to help make better management decisions and use IoT to transmit data directly from the field.
What does all of these technology options mean for the farm equipment
Will smart, precision equipment replace the need for humans in the field? In an era post Covid-19 to some degree they can, but equally they will allow employees achieve gains in productivity, traceability and environmental stewardship can be delivered. Embracing and incorporating innovative technologies enable producers to achieve the necessary production improvements required to feed the planet, and in the process replace manually laborious and back breaking work. As Norman Borlaug said, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise, there will be no peace.”
Aidan Connolly is CEO of Cainthus, an Irish artificial intelligence company, using computer vision to monitor animals. Cainthus combines unparalleled expertise and cutting-edge innovation to passively monitor cows, other livestock, and farm management practices 24/7, alerting the farmer when it matters most.
Aidan is also president of AgriTech Capital, a new company in the field of advisory investment and development of ventures in agriculture, focused on both startups and existing traditional business development. He has worked with several governments and leading food companies on agtech policy.
He is the author of the recently launched strategic business planning book, “2-1-4-3.”
Aidan Connolly graduated with a Master’s in International Marketing from the Smurfit School of Business, University College Dublin, Ireland. He previously worked with Alltech for more than 25 years, initially in Ireland, and then based in France, Brazil and the United States. He has traveled for business to more than 100 countries including most recently extensively in China. From 2002 until 2008, Connolly was Vice President of Alltech Europe, then to Washington DC as VP of Corporate Accounts. As Chief Innovation Officer Connolly was responsible for the commercialization of Alltech’s global research in addition to continuing corporate account strategy within Alltech.
His expertise is in branding, agriculture and international marketing. Connolly is an adjunct professor of marketing at University College Dublin and visiting professor at the China Agricultural University. He is a former member of the boards of IFIF, NPP, NCC, FEFANA, and a Fellow of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA). Aidan is also a member and regular contributor of the Forbes Technology Council.