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Growth in satellite networks set to boost uptake of precision agriculture

Agri-TechE Article

Precision agriculture is the farming equivalent of ‘just-in-time’ production that turned manufacturing on its head. Access to real-time information about crops, livestock, soil, and environmental conditions enables optimal decision-making for the timing of interventions. Advances in imaging and autonomous robotics are making it possible to tailor cultivation to the needs of the plant, animal or farm conditions and use inputs – fertiliser, feed, and plant protection products – strategically.

The market pull for digitalisation is becoming more intense in agriculture. As the cost of technology falls and shortage of seasonal workers becomes more acute, farmers are seeing automation as a business imperative. Agri-TechE has seen the rapid adoption of agri-robotics for scouting, cultivation and harvesting operations. Although this technology is still emerging, some vegetable and fruit growers are reporting that investment in technology is becoming essential to their survival.

Autopickr GUS early Version
Autopickr’s ‘GUS’ robot – the company reports that asparagus farmers see automation as business critical

The demand for automation is international, with the Western Growers Association, whose members produce 50% of the USA’s fresh produce, reporting a similar demand.

The industry is also seeing new types of collaborations. Tractor giant John Deere has recently announced a partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink that will see the first fully autonomous combine harvesters guided by satellites on farm trials in Texas.

Underpinning Agriculture 4.0 are advances in Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) technologies, that have enabled auto steering of machinery to millimetre precision, and the introduction of satellite and drone imaging to support the remote monitoring of crop performance and disease risk. LEO satellites will literally take this to a new level.

However there are still obstacles, including:

• Robustness of tech to environmental conditions
• Safe operation of robotics in unstructured environments
• Bandwidth for transferring data
• Technologies for analysis of large data-sets in real time
• Reliable connectivity and accuracy for positioning
• Battery life and energy consumption
• Lack of standards and interoperability

Wyld Networks
credit: Wyld Networks

Tech developed for agriculture needs to withstand the elements and to operate safely in unstructured environments, alongside humans. Also farming has small windows of opportunity. Producers want real-time information about disease status, seedling emergence, soil moisture etc to decide on the operations for the day. However, the current applications struggle to upload large data sets to the cloud and to provide the insights required.

Rory Daniels, Program Manager, Emerging Technology, UK Tech
Rory Daniels, techUK

Rory Daniels of techUK, the UK’s technology trade association, sees edge computing – where data is processed close to where it is generated – as having an important role in the future of agriculture.

He says: “Many data-intensive industries, particularly manufacturing, are increasingly adopting a hybrid approach in which cloud is combined with edge computing. Doing so in agriculture would enable farmers to employ automation and conduct real-time data analytics on-site, removing the need to transfer large raw datasets to the cloud.

“Such hybrid solutions will only improve as telecoms providers continue to innovate in the field of multi-access edge computing.”

Remote monitoring and sensing have the potential to be a timesaver, but livestock applications, such as monitoring the health of sheep or deer on hills, require cheap, lightweight sensors with long battery life – current sensors seem to fail in all three areas.

Again, Daniels says a number of developments in sensor technologies that are set to transform the cost and physical properties of sensors across numerous industries: “5G-enabled sensors offer new levels of low latency (delays in transmission) and high bandwidth to transmit and receive data more quickly.”

For livestock he also sees the potential of flexible sensors to remove the need for fastening mechanism, reducing the weight and cost of the device. For plants, the combination of graphene and fibre optics has led to the development of ‘wearables’ – pieces of tape that can monitor the movement of water within the plant and enable a wide range of Agriculture 4.0 applications.

However, Daniels warns: “Battery technologies still need significant improvement to increase the device’s operational life.”

Flock of sheep flexible sensors for precison agriculture

The most widely used technology, such as tractors, harvesters and automated milking systems, use proprietary systems. As a result, it is not unusual for farmers to need several different computers to manage the lack of interoperability.

Charlie Lane of XD Innovation talks about precision agriculture
Charlie Lane of XD Innovation

Agri-TechE member Charlie Lane of XD Innovation comments: “Part of the problem, as I see it, is the commercial element and the captive IP manufacturers retain. Ag is a standalone industry in the way it operates and although a large industry, not nearly on the same volume as its closest relative, automotive.

We see a lot more collaboration in other industries to align the technology layer in their products. We don’t have such collaboration to my knowledge in Ag. It could be that there is an opportunity for software developers to develop an agnostic platform which can work with the different interfaces available.

Again, the big difference is the other industries don’t have the complexity of a multitude of different tools requiring connectivity to their machine, all connectivity is managed at factory fit and not as an aftersales add on.”

Some Agri-TechE members are collaborating to overcome this challenge. David Aarons of Greenstalk sees huge potential for Internet of Things (IoT) to enable existing equipment to become ‘smart’. He says: “IoT enables data to be collected from ‘things’ – such as tractors, sprayers, irrigation systems, water tanks, weighbridges – regardless of their operating system and transmitted over the internet.

IoT enables farmers to monitor things in real-time and react quickly to issues and changes, without leaving the office.” Aarons has been working with fresh produce grower Frederick Hiam to add new functionality to its existing machinery, including a dated weigh bridge which now automatically collects information about loads.

For real-world application in agriculture it is important to consider the cost-benefit economics for basic commodity products.

Analysis by Imperial College London has shown that one medium sized datacentre consumes more water than three hospitals and Ireland’s Central Statistical Office says its datacentres use more electricity than all the rural dwellings in the country, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper.

Agri-TechE director Dr Belinda Clarke provides a cautionary word: “The strength of the agri-tech innovation ecosystem is that its members offer a diversity of perspectives, and it is farmer-centric.

Technology cannot replace the human farmer’s ability to make context relevant decisions to avoid undesired impacts.

“Also, in the move towards Net Zero there are many types of low-tech modifications to farming practices that can improve soil and crop resilience for the long term.

It is vital that technologists understand the on-farm challenges and engage with farmers to ensure future technologies do not have unintended consequences.”

Belinda with ARWAC at REAP 2022 Spacetech will support precision agriculture
Belinda talks agri-robotics with BBC Look East, at REAP 2022

More information

*The UK Space Agency Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit (C-LEO) programme will provide up to £160 million of grant funding and contract awards over the next 4 years to UK companies and researchers to develop innovative satellite communications technology. This call is now open, and the online Expression of Interest form should be completed by midday BST on Wednesday 8 May 2024.

Precision agri-tech could accelerate uptake of biologicals if regulations can keep up

Agri-TechE Article

Agri-TechE and Cambridge Consultants identify benefit of multi-disciplinary collaboration

The adoption of biological crop protection is being delayed by a regulatory environment that has failed to keep abreast of innovations that would make these products easier and more effective to use. This is according to a new report, ‘Precision spraying and biologicals – driving collaboration’, to be launched at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit USA (19-20th March 2024).

The report, produced by Agri-TechE in collaboration with Cambridge Consultants, part of Capgemini Invent, draws on the input from agronomists, agrichemical providers, formulators and equipment and machinery developers.

It reveals that there is significant market pull for biologicals from consumers and retailers keen to reduce the chemical residues left in food products and the environment. There is also a market push from the regulators, looking to reduce the usage of synthetic chemicals.

The report outlines the obstacles to adoption that could be overcome by existing agri-tech, accelerating the uptake of these products.

Co-author Dr Belinda Clarke is Director of Agri-TechE, a multi-disciplinary membership organisation that is facilitating the growth of a global innovation ecosystem in agri-tech.

She comments: “A desire for more sustainable practices in agriculture is driving interest in biological crop protection products, but the perception is that they are more costly to purchase, time-consuming to apply and less effective than the synthetic equivalents.

“Many of these reservations could be resolved by recent innovations in precision agriculture that more easily enable ‘per row’ and ‘per plant’ application cost-effectively within stringent spraying conditions,” she continues. “Unfortunately, the regulatory environment has not kept up with developments and is still centred around the ‘number of applications’ instead of the ‘total amount’ of active ingredient used across the field, and this is hindering developments.”

Advances in equipment – such as direct injection nozzles for sprayers – are reducing the cost of using biologicals, and robotics that enable automated application are increasing precision.

One of the examples in the report is the treatment of spider mites and russet mites in speciality crops. Autonomous equipment is used to apply predatory mites at night with greater accuracy than humans. This greatly increased the efficacy of the treatment. As navigation technologies improve these developments are becoming more accessible.

Dr Clarke concludes: “The industry urgently requires a more collaborative approach between formulators, equipment developers and regulators to fast-track these innovations.”

The full report outlines the potential of biologicals, the challenges for adoption and the market opportunities; download it here.

‘Techno-grazing’ more efficient and promotes soil health

Research Digest

It was in the REAP 2021 Emerging Agri-Tech panel that Sarah Morgan of Rothamsted Research outlined a new techno-grazing approach to managing grassland that kept the cattle penned into smaller cells and regularly moved to make more efficient use of the land.

Now a study published in the Journal of Environmental Management has shown that grassland can recover just as well from a highly-stocked cell-based approach as the traditional (set stocked) grazing model. The findings could have major implications for livestock management, allowing farmers to use less land to deliver similar quantities of high-quality protein without adversely affecting soil conditions.

Sarah Morgan at REAP 2021
Click to watch Sarah Morgan speaking in the Emerging Agri-Tech Session at REAP 2021 (video opens in new tab)

The study, undertaken at Rothamsted’s North Wyke farm in Devon, compared soil disturbance in traditionally grazed and cell-grazed fields.

The issue with the traditional method is that the pasture isn’t grazed evenly and grass can be trampled. Also animals tend to cluster around features like water troughs leading to compaction and bare patches. The cell grazing animals are restricted to a small area and regularly moved. In this way more grass is grown and harvested, but there were concerns that the concentration of animals would damage the soil structure.

Techno-grazing offers high quality protein on less land

By measuring soil compaction in both systems over a season, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in how grazing affects soil structure and how well the pasture recovered over the winter break.

“The results suggest that with careful management of cell grazing including appropriate stocking densities and resting periods, stocking rates on grassland could be increased with no detrimental consequences in soil structure beyond what would normally occur on grazed pasture,” said Dr Alejandro Romero-Ruiz who led the study. “This means we can deliver more high-quality protein using the same land – thus contributing to meet the growing demand for animal-origin foods.”

GPS collars used to create ‘Moovement Model’

The team tracked the steers’ daily grazing patterns using GPS collars. The patterns were similar in both systems suggesting that the animals’ foraging was not affected by the relatively small size of the enclosures.

The grazing pattern was consistent with Lévy walk process, a phenomena observed in groups of animals, (including humans navigating through crowded pavements), which is considered optimal when searching for unpredictably distributed resources.

Using information from the trackers the research team developed a so-called “Moovement Model” linking grazing patterns with soil structure and soil functions which may have applications to assess the impacts of grazing in other localities.

Future versions of this could include the prediction of areas of dung and urine deposition. These can be linked with variations in vegetation and increased numbers of microbial communities that may represent hot-spots of increased greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.

“A better understanding of how livestock move and interact with their environment may offer new insights on how grazing practices impact soil and ecosystem functions. This will potentially also offer solutions to reducing the impact of cattle on soil health and the environment,” said Romero-Ruiz.

To read the paper: Grazing livestock move by Lévy walks: Implications for soil health and environment
Alejandro Romero-Ruiz, Sarah Morgan et al.

REAP Emerging Agri-Tech

The REAP Emerging Agri-Tech session provides an opportunity to gain an update on exciting science developments.

Scientists at REAP 2023 include:

Dr Richard Green Harper Adams University: Grasslands
Dr Jolanda van Munster SRUC: Livestock
Dr Ewan Gage Cranfield University: Vegetable Nutrition
Dr Jacqueline Stroud University of Warwick: Soil
Jonathan Ashworth Earlham Institute: Biodiversity
Dr Myriam Charpentier John Innes Centre: Crop Traits
Dr David Withall Rothamsted Research: Insects

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