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How to digitize agriculture to make it greener09/10/2019
High-resolution UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are used in agriculture for mapping and monitoring crop areas. Credit: Aker.
FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
Tractors that don’t need a driver to move, machines that communicate with each other electronically and intelligent systems to get rid of weeds can already be found on agricultural land in Spain. The first drones have also begun to fly in order to draw detailed aerial maps and to be able to treat crops with precision and more sustainable techniques. And in the background, the horizon of machine learning appears increasingly clear, with its potential to improve yields thanks to fine-tuned predictions. The existing data show that this is still at the beginning, but little by little the farmland is also being digitized.
"The sector is undergoing a major transformation," says Manuel Pérez, a professor at the University of Seville. This researcher maintains that the process is being led from academic and university initiatives, but companies and manufacturers are also beginning to take it seriously. And the demand for professional profiles specialised in new technologies is growing, he says.
The innovations taking place in the sector seek to alleviate the working conditions of farmers, as well as to obtain better crop yields and reduce the impact of especially costly operations such as the detection of pests and diseases, according to Pérez. But there are also objectives related to sustainability: the reduction of herbicides harmful to the land and its food products and an intelligent management of the water needed for irrigation, a resource that in areas like southern Spain may be in short supply.
The latest INE statistics on technological innovation in the primary sector show that it is still a minority development. In 2016 (the last year with available data), only 5.4% of companies had been involved in this process. But Pérez says that some technologies are already mature and widely integrated into the work of farmers, while others have great potential for the coming years.
With the help of this expert —who coordinates the first master's degree in Spain specifically focused on the digitalisation of agriculture, a degree awarded by the University of Seville and inaugurated in 2018— we are now going to learn more about some of the main ones.
The future of agriculture involves the use of autonomous tractors, self-driving farm equipment and robots as the prototype of the photo. Credit: Small Robot Company.
Tractors and other self-guided machines
The human driving of agricultural vehicles has some drawbacks: among them, fatigue due to the monotony and repetitiveness of the task, and accumulated errors in following previous paths. The self-guidance systems of these machines are already an option integrated into most of them, and widely used by farmers, who generally see in them a safe and profitable investment, says Perez.
For now, the law requires drivers to remain in the vehicle even if they aren’t driving it. But now they can devote themselves to much more detailed supervision of the work in progress, the researcher points out. The next step in this innovation, he adds, will be to make the machines completely autonomous, so that a single operator can remotely control three or four of them at a time.
Electronic connection protocol
Almost all manufacturers of agricultural machinery now incorporate a unique electronic communication protocol into their products, the international ISOBUS standard, which allows compatibility between different machines through an Ethernet cable.
Thus the information obtained by a tractor, for example GPS data, can be transmitted directly to a device connected to it (without having to match the brands of the two devices), allowing a more fine-tuned application of fertilizers and herbicides and greatly improving the management of crops. "It's not a popular feature, but it really represents a breakthrough," says Pérez.
Intelligent control equipment
Every day the European regulations on the use of active substances against pests and weeds are more restrictive, and thus the need to find methods to control weeds without the use of chemicals is a special priority for organic farming. In recent years, machines have been implemented which are capable of detecting these harmful plants with cameras, for example, and removing them without damaging the crop.
Perez believes that the number of intelligent devices of this type adaptable to different agricultural systems will increase in the coming years. "From the point of view of environmental pollution and food safety, the advantages over the conventional application of herbicides are clear."
Unique electronic communication protocols, AI or machine learning, contribute to making the management of agricultural resources more sustainable and effective. Credit: Garford.
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the field is still in an experimental phase, says Pérez, but it also represents one of the innovations with the greatest potential for the future. One of its main benefits is to provide useful spatial information in order to generate detailed crop maps and thus allow better management of the land. If a thermal camera is incorporated, farmers can know the average temperature of the crops in order to better measure the irrigation in each part of a field.
"Estimating the exact harvest of a crop represents very relevant information for farmers and cooperatives or agents in charge of managing and selling the product," explains the the University of Seville professor. Therefore, taking advantage of the technology of automatic learning based on the analysis of huge amounts of data through algorithms can provide promising benefits in this regard.
Some projects based on artificial intelligence have already started. While the FAO forecasts that by 2050 agricultural production will have to have grown by 50% compared to 2012 to meet global demand, and the UN warns of the need to change the food model in order to curb climate change, there are some who also see potential in this innovation to make the management of agricultural resources more sustainable. "Things have always been done a little on the basis of the intuition and experience of grandparents and parents," says Perez. "Any technique that allows farmers to better quantify issues that were previously unquantifiable is very powerful."
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.