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How Does the Digital Transformation in Agriculture Occur?

Posted on Jun 13, 2019

For quite a long time, agriculture was an area where high tech and automated solutions were difficult to adopt. Whereas it was easy to implement an automated line or a quality control system, or build an AI-based solution in any production, agriculture has always been an area of expensive and complex implementations.

Why do fields and dairy farms not "love" IT?

Historically, the high cost of solutions and their components hampered the wide use of technologies in agriculture. As a rule, technology solutions for farms were distinguished by their large size and high-energy consumption. This all led to difficulties in the organization of service and repair. And it is critical for agriculture, where equipment is often operated in rough conditions.

However, the possibility of fully automating work in the field has existed for a long time. The problem lies in the economic dimension of such decisions. Today the situation has changed and real assistance in agriculture can be obtained using a small drone and a smartphone for control. However, it is only possible when we talk about simple monitoring tasks. Managing a farm, planting or harvesting using a tablet – doesn’t work without specialized solutions and technology. Thanks to the spread of simple solutions, complex ones gradually lose in value and become affordable.

The farm on the smartphone

It is possible to manage entire farms via smartphones, and it’s no longer an idea of the distant future, but the reality of the modern world. This is a normal practice, and it is technically not as difficult to do, as it may seem at first glance. To automate the process of animal housing, special systems are used to control humidity and temperature, air velocity, lighting, feeding, and watering. More sophisticated and modern equipment can reduce the need for labor. Besides, people tend to make mistakes, but cars do not. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take into account a number of aspects. It is important to understand how timely and appropriate the introduction of new technologies is and whether it can pay off.

Here is a real case: about 10 years ago, an owner of one of the largest agricultural holdings in Europe saw a sausage factory in Bulgaria that had almost no employees. Last year, a similar plant opened in one of the EU countries. Of course, the project is interesting, the factory is unique, but it will be paying off for at least ten years.

For a long time, agriculture was not an attractive area for investment. Potential investors were frightened by a long production cycle and the fact that natural phenomena could lead to crop losses, and it was impossible to automate biological processes.

Today automation and digitization of agriculture are attracting more and more investments, since automated production implies a predictable level of costs. Meanwhile, labor is expensive because of taxes, and it involves unpredictable expenses. Not surprisingly, many enterprises aim for modernization and move from manpower to machine labor. The main problem in this field is a long payback on the cost of production automation.

agriculture automation

The farm of the future

This year in March, World Agri Tech Innovation Summit 2019 took place. The conference has been held twice a year since 2013 and is considered one of the main events in the ag-tech (agrotechnology) industry. This is a meeting place for international investors, promising startups, technology giants and leading companies in the agro-business field. The summit brings together experts discussing best practices, innovative developments, and opportunities for their commercialization. According to the moods, trends and innovations that have already appeared and will soon spread to the agricultural sector, we can say that a “farm of the future” managed via a smartphone is a question of three, maximum five years.

One of the trends is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning methods to analyze the situation in the field. It is believed that particularly sensitive sensors can be installed on irrigation systems, or on quad bikes and agricultural equipment in the form of receivers, not to mention drones and compact satellites. Data collected by these sensors will be digitized and transmitted either to cloud servers or special hubs, where AI will analyze the information received about the soil condition, the presence of harmful insects or the first signs of plant disease, and then transfer the analysis results with further recommendations to a farmer's tablet or smartphone. The second point is the autonomous operation of robotics. After the analysis, it is not the farmer himself who is going to irrigate a specific arid part of the field, spray pesticides or fertilize the field, special equipment or drones will go instead. The third trend is the unmanned vehicles. That is, after all mentioned above, the farmer approves the recommendations proposed by the system on a tablet or smartphone and authorizes the equipment for further independent actions. Therefore, a quad bike or a tractor independently navigated by a GPS system or a farmer, at this moment lying on the couch, moves to a specific part of the field to solve the encountered problem.

All mentioned above is a question of a few years, as companies are already creating and testing prototypes for these purposes. Moreover, preliminary numbers for the purchase, establishment and maintenance of such decisions have already been provided. There is even a digital platform that simplifies the process of buying and selling seeds, crop protection agents, and fertilizers. It allows automating the search for suppliers, purchasers, providing additional channels of communication with colleagues or receiving consulting support from manufacturers. All these services are now available in a single application installed on a user's smartphone or computer.

What is working today?

Today, agriculture successfully uses drones and AI software solutions for crop planning. It allows effective distribution of the free area for planting crops and taking into account the specifics of each area for growing certain crops. Another innovation is the cloud-based monitoring of pumping stations of water supply systems in agricultural complexes and small farms that deal with crop production, livestock, and poultry farming. It is possible to manage the water supply system via a smartphone, tablet, or desktop.

At the same time, the system monitors over 100 parameters of the pumping station in the agricultural complex (farm) and warns of important changes, it can customize and archive parameters. Due to this, the system optimizes the technological process, efficiently uses energy resources, and reduces the cost of water supply.

Another solution is relevant for farms and allows using AI and IoT together in agriculture. It deals with the logistics of livestock. Special devices that feed cows, track not only the parameters of animal health, but also their daily activities. These parameters allow the prediction of the quality and volume of milk produced in a better way.

The machine vision is also applied in agriculture. For example, a startup Aquabyte taught the computer how to feed fish on a specially designed farm. Machine vision and AI allowed optimizing the use of feed, as well as improving the quality of the living condition of fish.

The solution of Soft Robotics is among the latest IT innovations in agriculture. The company produces robotic arms with soft grips that can be used to handle delicate items such as fruits and vegetables in processing plants.

agriculture automation

What awaits agriculture tomorrow?

Although a bit late, technologies are being introduced to agriculture. Since 2017, funding in the agrotechnology field has been growing due to investments. Compared to 2016, the inflow of investments increased by 32% to $ 2.6 billion, and 10 largest technological startups in agriculture attracted $ 50 million in private investment. The reason for the increase in the level of technological effectiveness in agriculture is that the Earth population is constantly growing, which means that we need technologies that will allow us to quickly produce products for people. In this regard, it is expected that the total industry performance will grow by 60% by 2030, and it will require technology implementation in all areas.