The agri community is sowing the seeds of state-of-the-art technology — including hi-tech machines, GIS and the cloud — to reap the benefits of efficiency and productivity, even as global demand for food grows in the face of shrinking land and water resources. By Mark Noort, Editor-Agriculture
There is a silent revolution on in the agriculture sector. With a new group of agricultural specialists and innovators entering the market, expect a global scenario where a fleet of UAVs being used for field monitor, advice for machine-guided centimeter-accurate precision farming at sub-plot level are a norm.
Use of technology to improve effectiveness and efficiency of farming practices is nothing new and has been a standard practice since the agrarian revolution hit Europe and America way back in 18th century. As science and technology took great strides in the next two centuries, new inventions and discoveries have enabled the farming community to effectively use precise land and weather data, sophisticated machineries and planting practices. However, as supply for land and water steadily goes down with increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, the agri community is taking to technology like never before to feed an ever increasing global population.
Since most national and agricultural policies were formulated way before the geospatial revolution took off — the first instance where the economic value of non-military satellite imagery was realised in 1970s when NASA discovered that it could monitor the wheat growth in the then Soviet Union — countries are now adopting newer and innovative ways towards a more holistic agricultural policy. However, as is with all sectors, adoption of technologies in agriculture is clearly split in a two-speed world. While the emerging markets are still stuck at macro-level policies with technologies like earth observation and GIS for application in areas like land and water resource management and crop monitoring etc., the developed world has moved ahead at a great speed with tools like mobile GIS, UAVs, and state-of-the-art machines.
While reviewing the technology trends, highlights and opportunities for agriculture, it should be noted that the integration of geospatial technology with ICT also applies to agriculture. Similarly, solutions that combine two or more of the categories presented below are very well possible.
Where the G factor comes in
- Agricultural knowledge and information systems: The knowledge and information systems in agriculture contain the following elements: parcel identification and measurement, geo-statistics and crop identification, field survey, subsidy and policy monitoring and control. The main client for such systems is the government. Outsourcing to private entities is a trend, but a substantial part of the work is still carried out by government departments. A huge initial investment is a requisite to set up such a system, and the benefits only follow later. Familiar examples are the GeoCAP system in the European Union and in the USA (Common Land Units, Cropland Data Layers and CropScape).
- Crop monitoring and yield forecasting: National and regional crop monitoring and yield forecasting is another important application field though still plagued by a lot of uncertainty. This has not so much to do with the adequateness of the technology applied, but more with the increasing demand for detailed information. It is very well possible to predict shortages that could cause a famine and to give general indications about trends, based on comparison with the previous year. China’s CropWatch and CropExplorer from the intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) are interesting examples.
AGRO-ICT INFRA AND STAKEHOLDER COOPERATION FOR FARMERS
A group of companies cooperates intensively on models for country-wide AGRO-ICT infrastructure solutions to boost rural development. The most relevant ones are Microsoft, PROGIS, telemetry- providers and consultants (local and international) and large IT companies. The implementation of the idea in practice is deployed in different European and African countries, commissioned by local ministers of agriculture or by larger cooperatives. The AGRO-ICT infrastructure consists of the following elements:
- The production of a high resolution ortho-image (MS Bing Map or any other high res orthoimage) for the whole country as base for any planning and control, and that serves to build-up an online mapping service.
- A cultivation register is superposed on the base map with the WinGIS system of PROGIS.
- Implementation of PROGIS AGROffice with DokuPlant for land and farm- and/ or ForestOffice for forest-management (FMIS) also enables advisory services, applications for statistical purposes of the Ministry and to embed farmers into environmental caretaking measures under sustainability principles including nutrient balance, carbon- and/or energy balance.
- Installation of logistic systems for group management, for enabling and optimising machine work, just-in-time transports and profit from synergies between chain stakeholders with a dispatch center as well as GMS and flatrate supported mobGIS.
- Additional installation of agro-sensor networks — weather stations, soil sensors, for decision support and precision farming guidance.
- Apps for mobile solutions support.
- GIS apps for field identification,
- Access to the logistic system for automated order processing.
- Access to farm management tools for sending and receiving cultivation specific orders (including precision farming maps via advisors).
- Access to the software developer component for own and local GIS-based developments.
- On top of the existing ICT infrastructure, technologies like smart farming, precision farming, virtual farming, precision forestry, other outstanding technologies and new concepts regarding environment and risk management can be implemented and technology and know-how is provided to support local stakeholders in rural area management.
- This facilitates consulting services, technologies and know-how that are needed for local rural area management, land consolidation (Z-GIS with the Austrian government) and improvement of methods and know-how.
- Next to economical return on investment, the AGRO-ICT infrastructure also allows for an ecological RoI by integrating farmers with environmental and riskmanagement processes, resulting in increased land value for a single farm but also for a country through optimal and sustainable management. Inclusion of local expertise is an integral component of the business model.
Dr Oscar Rojas, Natural Resources Officer (Agrometeorology) in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), confirms that FAO uses near real-time monitoring of the vegetation every 10-days with METOP images, free distribution, at 1-km resolution. The analysis is automated and the main challenges are free access, development of the processing chain and routines to produce maps and graphs automatically. There is a trend towards the use of open source for processing of remote sensing images and high-resolution imagery to improve land use studies (such as the sentinel sensors).
A noteable example in this area is the STARS project (which stands for Spurring a Transformation for Agriculture through Remote Sensing) launched by the ITC Faculty of the University of Twente. The project, which aims to investigate the use of present-day remote sensing technology for monitoring crop growth at the level of small farm plots found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will be executed in close collaboration with research institutes in West and East Africa, Bangladesh, Australia, Mexico and the United States. To make the information relevant in the form of concrete advice at the regional and district levels, more tools need to be developed to increase accuracy and timeliness. Important are the distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural land, between different types of crops and different growing phases of the crops. Typical clients are therefore governments and farmers’ associations, although when more detailed and near real-time information is delivered, crop monitoring becomes an instrument for market information (prediction of commodity prices and flows).
- Transport infrastructure: The analysis and improvement of transport infrastructure and transport to markets is crucial for the management of the whole food (or produce) chain. Agriculture is not restricted to what happens on the farm, but includes every step needed to reach the consumer.
It is estimated that in developing countries post-harvest losses can amount up to 40%. As per a FAO report, roughly 30% of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted. This amounts to around $680 billion in industrialised countries and $310 billion in developing nations. The geospatial aspect can be used for streamlining food chain management and analysis of bottlenecks, especially since in the medium- and high-income countries, where food is wasted and lost mainly at later stages in the supply chain as a result of lack of coordination between actors in the supply chain. For countries where agriculture is an important part of the economy, improving the infrastructure for chain management is crucial.
Geospatial analysis leads to better planning of maintenance or construction of roads, railways, bridges and other types of infrastructure and improved location of storage, processing and market facilities. Most of this concerns public funds and investments. Governments are therefore the main clients, but food processing companies and mill owners will also have a direct interest. The Herbert Resource Information Centre in Australia, which uses location-based data and GIS technologies for an integrated approach that also includes transportation, is a classic example (Page 38).
- Market information: The provision of timely and accurate market information has enjoyed quite some popularity recently. All kinds of experimental schemes where information is provided to and exchanged with the farmer are developed and tested. In developing countries, investment in such schemes is increasingly backed up by donor support. From the commercial side as well, instruments are developed to cater to specific needs, such as Thomson Reuters’ Market Light for farmers in India. This is a clear example of integration of geospatial technology with general information technology. It may well be that in future a farmer is obliged to invest in this type of information to keep up with the competition; similar effect was observed in the farm mechanisation process in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Site evaluation: In terms of suitability analysis for crops and farming systems and with the goal of increased production/ productivity, site evaluation and sustainable land use is an often forgotten component. Farm site evaluation is a more specific example, closely related to precision agriculture. Following the same logic, farmers will pay for advice that increases returns. Admittedly, the Netherlands is not a very large country to be representative as example, but in the 1950-60s, the agricultural sector was turned inside out to improve the productivity of soils, farm management and use of resources. This included repartitioning of plots in more efficient units, making the country one of the prime producers of agricultural products in the world. Also, the climate change concerns necessitate such suitability analyses. That Monsanto paid about a billion dollars to take over the Climate Cooperation proves the point. In recent years, countries such as Brazil and China have been very successful on both counts by respectively improving the returns from vast areas of unproductive land and increasing efficiency in use of resources.
Greece-based Soil Science Institute of Thessaloniki (SSI), which has a dedicated geospatial team, has implemented a Soil Map Study. Interestingly, the project goes beyond the usual data like location of the field, and studies the physical and chemical properties of the soil, which is one important component of precision agriculture. Without soil maps, there cannot be sound exploitation of the natural resources because modern technical knowledge (precision agriculture) cannot be used and crop growing is based only on the experience or extensive soil sampling, which is not cost effective.
One of the key components of the SoilMFS is the Fertilization Advisory Module that automatically calculates the fertiliser recommendation doses of the basic macronutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, calcium and magnesium) and micronutrients (zinc, iron, copper, manganese and boron) for the main regional crops. It is taking into account the physical and chemical properties in the field parcels (soil texture, pH, organic matter) and the determined concentration at the time of the sampling, and calculates the recommended fertiliser rates, the critical time and the manner of application (soil or foliar application).
GIS comes off age
The most significant deliverables for agriculture in the recent times have been the high-quality GIS platforms that integrate a broad range of data acquired from many sources, says Clint Graumann, Sales Director, North America, BlackBridge. However, in a competitive market, companies providing GIS solutions cannot sustain by offering only a GIS software suite or a data stream. It has to be a true platform that combines source data, desktop computing power, mobile access, and a strong cloud infrastructure, all used in a way so that the grower and crop consultant can make informed decisions.
Agrees Susana Crespo, Industry Manager, Agriculture, ESRI. “From a high level, the great value of GIS lies in its ability to integrate and analyse data to measure matrix that matter to agriculture, and to turn that understanding into evidence for a more optimised behavioral change.”
The great contribution that GIS does is offer a platform that farmers care about and try to understand why they are making those observations. “I really look forward to leveraging imagery and earth observations into the agriculture world,” adds Crespo, pointing out now there is free access to decades of 30-metre resolution data and one can on-the-fly do the assessment of crop health and vegetation health.
Precision farming: The key to productivity
This is perhaps the clearest example of the commercial application of geospatial technology in agriculture. Machine guidance, precise planting and harvesting, fertilisation advice, yield monitoring, water management advice at farm level all contribute to increased production and cost savings.
“Precision agriculture is about using higher accuracy or improved resolution to examine and resolve the common challenges of field production agriculture,” says Michael Gomes, Vice President, Business Development, Topcon Precision Agriculture. “It is a SMART technology, as it involves a feedback loop and continuous improvement. Precision Ag for many is about using ‘higher resolution’ or better sensors, to examine, quantify and then manage various problems or ‘challenges’ of variance in field production practices.”
Traditionally, manufacturers of agricultural machinery, such as John Deere, and providers of location-based products and services, such as Trimble and Topcon, have cornered the market. However, the business depends to a large extent on the local distributors who are specialists in the application of the technology to suit the challenges specific to each region. This market, points out Gomes, is of the traditional “professional farmers” who are typically larger farms, agri businesses, and farm service providers or contractors.
While according to Mike Martinez, Marketing Director, Agricultural Division, Trimble, “virtually every precision agriculture product utilises geospatial technologies.” Three categories of products are especially worth highlighting:
- Guidance and application of inputs: Utilising various guidance and application precision agriculture products, farmers can more accurately navigate vehicles and implements, and better control their applications. From centimeter- accurate auto steering of tractors and farm vehicles, to variable rate applications of seeds and fertilisers, to the office software systems that help farmer and agronomists better access in field problems and then use high accuracy tools to resolve them, farmers today have a choice of precision farming tools. Using guidance technologies in the application of seed, fertiliser, or chemicals can help farmers more precisely apply these inputs through variable rate control and automatic section control, which drastically reduces overlap and leads to input cost savings.
- Real-time sensing: Real-time sensing products, such as Trimble’s GreenSeeker crop sensing system, help farmers more effectively and precisely manage their inputs on the go. The GreenSeeker crop sensing system is a variable rate application and crop vigour mapping system that offers a more efficient and precise way to manage crop inputs such as nitrogen. The system verifies in real-time the amount of nitrogen the soil has made available to the plant using complex agronomic calculations called NDVI. The GreenSeeker system then determines an onthe- go fertiliser prescription for instant application.
- Agronomic Services: With advancement in precision agriculture technology, farmers have access to more data than ever before about their applications, soil, crop, and more. As a result, farmers are increasingly relying on local crop consultants for data crunching and determine the best course of action to take in the future. “Agronomic services are an important category in agriculture. We have recently added agronomic services to our suite of products,” says Martinez. The Soil Information System (SIS) solution is a 3D soil analysis mapping technology that uses advanced sensors along with intelligent targeting and geo-processing algorithms to produce high resolution, accurate soil and topographic information, thus enabling crop consultants to make more informed decisions. Another agronomic service is the — PurePixel Precision Vegetation Health Solution, which provides farmers and their trusted advisors with a high precision source of vegetation health information to drive improved crop analysis.
‘Need to integrate systems and manage information for decision-making’
AgriFuture Days may well become ‘the’ event for family farming and ICT in the future. The second version was organised by the Club of Ossiach in June (see box on page 24). Main drivers behind the event and the Club of Ossiach are Ajit Maru of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) and Walter H. Mayer of PROGIS. Geospatial World caught up with Ajit Maru:
Stakeholder participation in ICT development and implementation of innovative initiative is mentioned as one of the key aspects of the work of the Club of Ossiach. What is the representation of farmers in the Club of Ossiach and in the AgriFuture Days?
There are a lot of people with their roots in farming present in the Club and in the conference. For instance, I myself am from a farming family and Walter [H. Mayer] is also a farmer. Several farmers’ organisations are also represented. Farmers are therefore well presented in this community in addition to those involved in business, academics, cooperatives and civil society organisations.
The Club of Ossiach has very ambitious goals — to support the creation of a bio-based economy, increase the potential to feed the world in a sustainable way and to help the poor benefit from economic and technological transformation. What is its specific role and positioning to achieve these goals?
The initial driver for establishing the Club of Ossiach was the personal contact between Walter Meyer and me. We both felt that we should connect different sectors to support the uptake of ICTs in agriculture. We also felt that European ICT technology for agriculture and those involved with them lacked international exposure. In our work with GFAR and PROGIS, we both were active from the research and business sides, respectively, and we felt that an initiative such as the Club of Ossiach definitely would provide added value. Farming is looked upon as a common place activity with its potential perceived only in large business contexts. Therefore, advocates for ICTs uptake such as for smallholder and family farming are needed as they play a very important role in agri-food chains and the management of the environment and even cultural heritage the world over. There is also a need to integrate systems and manage information for decision-making in an ever increasingly complex world. Increase in agricultural production, improved environmental protection and conservation of biodiversity cannot be achieved without involving family farming. The Club of Ossiach focuses on smallholder farmers and aims at establishing a dialogue for uptake of ICT solutions by these farmers. Its operations are transparent and open and quality standards for engagement are kept very high.
The Ossiach Declaration on the uptake of ICT for agriculture, forestry, rural viability and environmental management lists quite a number of ICT priorities and possible actions, such as innovation adoption, know-how transfer, technology integration, new business models, stimulating innovations, cooperation at the various production and social levels, universal benefit for all chain members and support of a European Innovation Partnership (EIP) on “Agricultural Productivity and Sustainability”.
What will the focus be in the first years?
The focus will be on sharing of information and further development of the agro-ICT-concept (see box on Pg 20). Although core technology can be protected, applications should be developed in an open environment so that all categories of entrepreneurs, especially small and medium, who have a very key role to play in providing knowledge services to rural areas and agriculture, are encouraged, facilitated and supported. The Club aims at answering the questions as to why these technologies are not integrated in holistic solutions through collaboration and partnerships as they should be or why they are not working out. At the moment, for example, there is no common open information system for agriculture in Europe (at least not for countries that do not belong to the European Union) which can be used by all involved. As for the Club of Ossiach itself, the focus will be on consolidation and expansion of membership and activities. Membership is open, but one has to be recommended by a current member. The Club of Ossiach will operate on the basis of independent funding; sponsorship can facilitate additional project funding.
Walter Mayer, CEO of ProGIS, stresses the broader context on the benefits of precision agriculture when he says it supports both the economy and ecology if one uses the right tools and knowhow. PROGIS focuses on communication of maps from FMIS or logistic systems to equipped (terminal) or nonequipped (smartphone) new or old tools in addition to building a network of service providers for precision farming maps and support to the clients with know-how and technology. The main clients are governments, cooperatives and large farms.
The trick with precision farming is not one-size-fits-all and often lies in close connect with the farmers. It helps for companies providing services in this area to stay in close contact with resellers, farmers, agronomists and others in the industry to ensure we are continuing to develop solutions that help farmers be more efficient, profitable, and sustainable, adds Martinez.
As Gomes points out: “Our main challenge is addressing our customer’s needs mixing innovation and high technology with an end user friendly design. In a dynamic market, it is not possible to cater the demands perfectly, because each time users want more and more features.” The best way thus is hearing the market — that means taking care of the final user. The only way is: understanding the needs of the farmers, investigating and designing solutions that can help productivity and efficiency.
Flying high with UAVs
Agriculture is said to be the next big benefactor of UAVs. “UAVs offer the same kind of georeferenced data as other means of aerial data acquisition such as satellites or light aircrafts, but they are more precise, cost effective and flexible,” says Emmanuel de Maistre, CEO of RedBird.
One of the specific applications will be pest management: the earlier indications of pests and diseases can be spotted resulting in less damage. Experts, such as Oscar Rojas, confirm the trend towards the use of drones for precision farming.
Farmers plant and harvest according to a predetermined schedule — this is traditional agriculture. What geospatial technologies such as UAV offer is real-time data acquisition on weather, soil, air and crop maturity in order to predict the evolution of the crops and make smarter decisions. De Maistre feels there is scope to go further and extend the definition of precision agriculture to precision crop dusting and complete the value chain. In Japan, Yamaha has been using unmanned helicopters for crop dusting for more than 20 years. Now imagine a connected farm with fixed-wing UAVs to acquire critical data that would be processed (technical indexes and associated recommendations) and sent back to unmanned helicopters to crop dust with high precision!
The ‘Club of Ossiach’
It is a group of agriculturists, agribusiness managers, agriculture technologists and agricultural ICT specialists from around the world with interest in the uptake of ICTs for agriculture. It was established in 2013. The Club is a platform with international membership to review and discuss current trends and possible discontinuities resulting from political, social, environmental and technological changes, potentially impacting the future of agriculture, farming, rural viability, food and nutrition worldwide. The club aims at the adoption of ICT for the benefit of agricultural communities and action towards it. One of the activities of the Club of Ossiach is the organisation of the AgriFuture Days Conferences. This event took place for the second time in Villach, Austria from June 16-18, 2014. The Club can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the end of the day, the images collected by the UAVs are processed to extract some useful data and provide deliverables such as crop index maps. Technical indexes include brightness soil (photochemical reflectance index), vegetation index (normalised difference vegetation index, normalised difference red edge, normalised difference nitrogen index), moisture stress (crop moisture stress index) or water stress index in order to offer a plan to optimise the inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, water etc.) and ultimately the crops (yield estimation, harvesting planning optimisation). “Deliverables can be seen as index maps but in reality farmers will not bother understanding the science behind them; thus, our job, with the help of qualified agronomists, is to provide concrete technical recommendations,” says de Maistre.
There are numerous challenges when addressing the users’ demands. They include developing market-oriented applications for farmers which require assessing their needs with stringency, being able to bear the financial weight of geospatial technologies (including vectors and softwares) for UAV operators, facing technical barriers such as pilot and data processing qualifications, regulatory barriers (restrictive rules) and complying to market trends — agriculture is a promising market for UAV but it is still not mature enough to generate sufficient business volumes and recurring contracts.
Redbird is accelerating the development of its services for the agriculture sector which is meant to reach maturity in the course of 2015. This means the development of a multispectral sensor embeddable in a UAV, which will include several identified wavelengths: prototyping, and then testing on identified crops.
Mayer of ProGIS identifies that the technological challenges lie in the area of the existing infrastructure, public- private-partnership models, stakeholder cooperation and technology integration. “It is very important to understand the user needs and speak his ‘language’.”
What the future holds
The subject of agriculture is difficult to delineate, as there is an overlap with land and environment-related issues. Interestingly, the most promising markets may be found in this overlap if priority is given to sustainable management of resources and climate change. The role of farming will then be a double one: agricultural production and caretaking of the environment.
The future will be characterised by an integrated approach. Apart from aspects mentioned above, such as value chain management and agriculture, forestry-environment nexus and/or the water -food-energy nexus, there are several other aspects of an integrated approach that deserve special mention. Cloud computing is a whole new development in this arena (Page 26). New initiatives, especially public-private partnerships for the support of agriculture in general, are being generated from the bottom-up, such as the AgriFuturedays and Club of Ossiach initiative for family farming (see interview on Page 23) or are stimulated by governments, such as the Geodata for Agriculture and Water programme of the Dutch government for smallholder farmers.
Further, farmers’ risk needs to be hedged against natural disasters and price volatility (and of course conflicts and other types of political upheaval). Agricultural insurance is one of the instruments to provide more security. The issue of index insurance (based on a single parameter, such as rainfall, evapotranspiration, NDVI or a combination of these) has gained in popularity in the past decade, especially with development agencies. Small farmers in developing countries can benefit considerably from such schemes, enabling escape from the poverty trap (See April 2014 edition of Geospatial World). Farmers that operate more commercially also benefit from insurance. Whatever the type of insurance, the geospatial component is indispensable in going through the necessary steps of plot identification, crop identification, crop monitoring, yield estimation, loss event monitoring and verification, risk assessment and determination of insurance product indicators.
The challenge in the industry is scaling the delivery of big data so that it can be utilised at the field level, says Graumann, whose company BlackBridge collects as much as 5 million sq km of satellite imagery every day and has been able to overcome this challenge by working closely with other industry partners to find solutions.
Equipment compatibility is another challenge. Since most farmers have a mixed-fleet operation, hardware manufacturers like Trimble and Topcon have to design products with a brand-agnostic strategy to work with thousands of manufacturer makes and models.
However, as Susana Crespo of Esri wraps it up, the main challenge is to develop the trust to inspire the industry to adopt something new. “Often they wait for others to adopt first to see the business value before they take on; sometimes people do not like adopting change.”
However, the geospatial industry has so much to offer that the challenge is about communication and getting the word about what the technology can do and cross-seeding the population about stories so they can be more comfortable in adopting the technologies. Dr Rojas thinks geospatial technology has a promising future; with respect to early warning for food security, the ultimate success will depend on developments and the uptake in the individual countries concerned.
“I look forward to the community building upon the new opportunity of efficiency that is being provided by services, including Web services,” adds Crespo. Integration and interoperability is expected to take the GIS platform into a mobile environment, giving the power in the hands of a simple farmer.