Digitalization for Greener, More Efficient, and More Profitable Agriculture
There is no industry in the world that has not been touched to a lesser or greater extent by digitalization. Agriculture may be one of the fields where digital technology adoption is slower than in others, but advanced digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), big data, or the Internet of Things are nevertheless being integrated into agricultural practices. Here are some projects where digitalization is a stepping-stone for taking farming into the digital era.
Cloud-based AI platform for sustainable agriculture
Given the challenges facing farmers today – including climate change, lack of skilled labor, and increasingly stringent environmental regulation – there is a need for new tools and methods that can make agronomy more sustainable as well as more efficient. To this end, a team of researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI) in Germany are developing a cloud-based platform with open interfaces that can be used by the agriculture and industry sectors and providers of specialized service solutions in those fields.
The cloud-based data aggregation platform will enable a series of agricultural applications that can give the process of digitalizing Germany’s agriculture a much-needed sustainability boost. Together with partner organizations, the HHI scientists have launched the NaLamKI (Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft mittels KI, “AI-Based Sustainable Agriculture”) project with funding from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Its purpose is to build a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform where data gathered by machines and devices can be collected and analyzed to provide an information base that will assist prognostics and decisionmaking in the farming sector.
The NaLamKI platform will aggregate sensor and device data collected by satellites and drones, ground sensors, and robotics, as well as manually collected statistics and legacy data, into a broad data pool that can be used to deploy Artificial Intelligence (AI) for streamlining agricultural processes and making them more sustainable. For example, the information will help farmers to analyze the state of crops and soils across broad swathes of farmland and to tailor activities such as watering, fertilizing, or pest control in a way that provides sufficient high-quality crops, and reduces emissions and safeguards biodiversity. Measures such as these not only raise crop yields and bring down costs, but also protect resources and the environment.
Beyond concerns about sustainability, the data platform will also help farmers utilize AI to compensate for a lack of skilled labor. By aggregating and modeling drone, satellite, and robot camera data, the planned cloud service will provide them with an overview of soil and plant conditions across large areas. The farmers will also be able to interact with the AI to ask questions and receive recommendations, for example, based on soil moisture or symptoms of crop blights.
The SaaS platform and AI services will be based on GAIA-X, a cloud infrastructure subject to European data sovereignty, together with a distributed-learning AI using farmers’ locally stored data. This will allow them to exchange AI models and transfer them to the NaLamKI platform and improve the algorithms. The platform will be open to third-party solutions, which could be provided by startup vendors of innovative AI applications, for example.
Green-on-Green Tech – Algorithms Fighting Crop Weeds
Weeds are still among the most potent enemies of productivity in agriculture. Over the ages, farmers have constantly been looking for new ways to fight them. Digitalization of weed-control activities seems to bring a new promise of efficiency.
“Green-on-green” technology, a new innovation in agriculture developed and tested in Canada, instantly identifies weeds in growing crop fields, generating real-time maps and allowing for spot spraying. Besides reducing the costs related to human labor and pesticides, this technology has a positive impact on the environment, as it limits the amounts of pesticides released into the fields, leading to more sustainable agriculture.
This innovation builds upon “green-on-brown” technology, developed a few decades ago, which uses algorithms to identify green patches (i.e., weeds) on brown surfaces of soil. The algorithm then triggers a device that neutralizes them with pesticides. Despite the cost savings and efficiency afforded by this method, farmers rarely use it. The initial algorithm, which relied on identifying the color green imparted by plant chlorophyll, couldn’t differentiate between crop plants and weeds. Therefore, the fields first needed to be mapped manually, and the patches of weeds identified by human workers. However, due to the seasonality and changes in soil composition, new distribution patterns of weeds would appear every year, requiring additional efforts and resources for mapping.
Tom Wolf is the owner of Agrimetrix Research & Training, a Saskatoon-based company that specializes in the study of agricultural sprays. He says green-on-green technology is capable of differentiating between weeds and crops, generating the map instantaneously, and targeting only the areas where pesticides are needed. The technology is currently being adopted by an increasing number of farmers, who are able to use it with the equipment they already operate. Moreover, manufacturers of farming equipment have already started to build additional products that complement and enhance this digitalization initiative.
AI-powered sensor suite for more efficient agriculture
In an effort to alleviate the labor shortage and support the adoption of more sustainable practices in agriculture, the Canadian government has commissioned a CAN$419,000 project that will use digitalization technologies and AI to help farmers manage resources in a more effective and efficient manner. The Eye-Box project is a suite of AI-powered sensors and software that will automate agricultural data collection and processing, leaving the farmers more time to focus on other tasks.
Mojow Autonomous Solutions won the digitalization project to build a system comprising multiple cameras with GPS capabilities. These will transmit the collected data in real time to a powerful computer for processing.
Based on these automatically collected images, which are subsequently interpreted and classified, Eye-Box will develop a digital twin of the farm that will be updated continuously and will help farmers make decisions on various issues related to agricultural work.
“By supporting innovation solutions for Canada’s agriculture sector, we are helping our farmers improve the efficiencies within their business while finding ways for them to respond to challenges such as labor shortages. With investments in businesses such as Mojow Autonomous Solutions Inc., the Government of Canada is helping to strengthen the competitiveness and resilience of the sector for the long term,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.
New sources of revenue for farmers with carbon credits platforms
Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have been following the formula of planting seeds and harvesting the produce that grows from them. Now, some of them are being offered a different deal: bury carbon in the ground and get paid to ensure it stays there. Major agro-corporations like Cargill and Bayer are offering to sign up farmers for a program to harvest not cash crops, but carbon credits that can be sold to greenhouse gas emitters looking to offset their carbon footprints.
By planting cover crops during off-seasons, growers can improve the quality of their soil, raising nutrient levels and enabling it to hold more water. Increasingly, however, another aspect is gaining attention – the ability of the soil to sequester atmospheric carbon. In combination with the sparing use of fertilizer and less tilling, this practice can be used to extract CO2 from the air and ensure that it remains in the ground for extended durations.
Farmers can log these activities on a digital platform and rack up carbon credits, or certificates permitting emissions in increments of one tonne of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases, which can be bought and sold or used to offset the farmers’ own business activities in other areas.
While carbon capture and storage (CCS) is only one of many measures for mitigating climate change, it appears to be gaining traction as a commercial proposition, backed by major corporations in the agricultural sector or related areas, including providers of fertilizer, seeds, and chemicals such as Nutrien, Yara, Corteva, Cargill, or Bayer. The latter has contracted with farmers to sequester carbon on approximately 1.5 million acres of land, mostly in the US, according to Reuters. Cargill plans to offset emissions released by its supply chain operations by about one-third by 2030 and will enroll 10 million acres in sustainable agriculture programs by the end of the decade.
The CCS platform may be the best example of a business embracing the digitalization trend in agriculture by offering farmers a welcome opportunity to gain revenue while also improving the health of their soil.
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