Imagine a swarm of drones flying over acres and acres of farmed fields. These self-flying drones know the area thanks to digital maps, can guide themselves via GPS and are able to communicate with each other to better organise their work. And what work are they doing? Checking the health of crops, taking photographs and shooting high-definition videos, and then sending all the collected information to a computer where someone can monitor the situation. But that’s not all. These drones can spray pesticides only in targeted areas where they are actually needed, identify where the most destructive insects nest, and determine which areas of land are under (or over) irrigated.
As you can imagine, one of the main aims in the use of drones is to make agriculture increasingly rational, efficient and sustainable, minimising waste and optimising the use of resources. Together with sensors, 5G, artificial intelligence and more, smart agriculture, or precision agriculture, is coming to life, a rapidly growing sector that promises to reduce the use of pesticides by 85% and increase yields (and turnover) by up to 20%.
Given this, it is not surprising that the turnover related to agricultural drones is set to reach 2 billion of dollars by 2021. In the meantime, these flying objects are being equipped with increasingly advanced technologies, including geolocation, satellite interaction, thermal and optical proximity sensors, data processing and management through image recognition, and more. But the whole smart agriculture market is growing at a rapid pace, so much so that in the next five years it should double, reaching a total value of 22 billion of dollars.
A rapid growth
The reasons for such a fast development are easily understood and have been effectively summarised in Scientific American magazine: “As the world's population grows, farmers will have to produce increasingly more food. However, arable land cannot keep up and the looming threat to food security could easily turn into regional or even global instability. To adapt, companies are increasingly exploiting precision agriculture to increase yields, reduce waste and mitigate the economic and safety risks that inevitably accompany agricultural uncertainty”.
According to a report by the United Nations, the world population is set to reach 9.7 billions by 2050 and nearly 11 billions by the end of the century. To ensure sustenance for all, arable land will need to become much more profitable than it is today, with the need to increase production for the same amount of land by 60%. This goal can only be achieved through the use of new agricultural technologies, which have already been at least partially adopted by 55% of the farms interviewed in a study by the Polytechnic University of Milan’s Smart Agrifood Observatory.
Precision farming in Italy
While the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia are the nations most rapidly adopting precision farming technologies, things are moving quickly in Italy, too. The Italian market achieved a turnover of 400 million in 2019, with a growth of 270% compared to the previous year. “The success of agricultural businesses increasingly depends on the ability to collect and use the large amount of data generated, especially in terms of cost control and increase in production quality”, explained the Observatory’s director Andrea Bacchetti.
Of course this data is not only collected by drones. Sensors are another example of smart agriculture technology. They are installed in fields to collect data, which is then processed to provide advice on the most suitable plants for a certain type of soil, suggest the best time to plough a field and predict the expected yield for the current season. It’s also possible to automatically optimise water consumption through the use of sensors, based on the needs of different sections of the land, saving from a minimum of 25% and up to a maximum of 60% water.
The role of Artificial Intelligence
As water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, exploiting technology to reduce its consumption is vital. And this is where – in addition to the savings made possible by sensors that monitor field conditions – artificial intelligence also comes into play. An Italian startup, Blue Tentacles, uses an AI-based precision system with sensors to record humidity, temperature, climate, weather forecasts and satellite data to help farmers improve their irrigation, saving water and energy.
In the area of artificial intelligence, we should also not underestimate the importance of the new cutting-edge self-driving tractors for the sector. The vehicles, developed by historic brands such as John Deere or the new 100% electric startups such as Monarch, are not only able to drive themselves, but also collect information and, totally independently, carry out the work necessary to obtain optimum productivity.
In addition to increasing yields and reducing waste, digital agriculture innovation makes it possible to partially remedy the serious environmental problems that have a direct impact on agriculture. The intensive exploitation of natural resources has led to their deterioration, resulting in the current situation of scarcity and costs that are no longer sustainable in environmental and social terms. From a pollution point of view, this has resulted in a loss of biodiversity and reduction in soil fertility. This has now become an urgent problem for Italy, too, where an estimated 33% of fertile land has been lost over the last 40 years.
It is here that robotics could make a fundamental contribution. In the United States, there is an increase in the number of startups, such as Iron Ox, who are specialising in the use of robotic arms to farm vegetables in hydroponic tanks (especially lettuce, which is particularly easy to grow this way). By using artificial intelligence, Iron Ox robots are able to detect pest attacks and diseases before they take hold, thereby cultivating lettuce that would usually need 12 hectares on half a hectare of land.
But technology not only contributes to remedying changes affecting the soil, it also tackles problems affecting the air, and the insects that populate it. Bee colony collapse disorder, for example, is the still little-known phenomenon that is causing the death of bees all over the world. According to a study by the University of Milan, there is a risk that bees will become extinct within a century.
The principle causes of this appear to be the excessive use of pesticides (which, as noted, the use of sensors and drones promises to drastically reduce) and climate change. Although the priority must be to stop the decline in the population of bees and other insects, technology can still be of immediate help, by creating robot-pollinators that make up for the reduction of insects that carry out this vital work.
One of the most interesting projects in this area is being carried out at the University of Delft in the Netherlands, which is working to create mini-drones with wings capable of pollinating plants. This robot, named DelFly, is able to hover over a certain area, move in any direction and even suddenly rotate at 360°, thereby replicating – thanks to its wings – typical insect movement. The wings are made of mylar, a transparent film that makes these tiny robots very light and safe for people working close by.
Nevertheless, they are still quite large in size. DelFly has a wingspan of 33 centimetres and weighs 29 grams, which is 55 times the weight of a real bee. Its independent flight time is also very short, only six consecutive minutes. But obviously this technology is still in its infancy. The aim is to further reduce the size of the robot-bee and equip it with more durable batteries, making it a viable tool for crops that are already suffering from the shortage of pollinating insects.
Smart agriculture is set to become the farmer’s most useful ally, thanks to its potential in terms of environmental sustainability – reducing consumption and improving yields – and in providing essential tools to tackle the most immediate problems. At the same time contributing to the well-being of the planet.
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