Precision applying herbicides, enhancing crop quality and pest monitoring are just some of the areas where sensors can be used in agriculture, delegates attending a recent Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Network conference heard.
Agri-businesses that could benefit from sensors, companies manufacturing sensors and researchers working on them were among the attendees at the Sensing in Precision Agriculture conference held in Leeds, West Yorkshire.
Dave Ross CEO of the government-established Agri-Epi Centre, which focuses on precision agriculture and engineering, said: “Sensing systems are key enablers for better, more productive and sustainable food production. There is a need for in-field disease sensors and in-field crop quality and yield sensors.”
He acknowledged that low power networks are a barrier to use of remote technology and connectivity to 5G is needed to progress sensing systems.
Sensors could be used to assess nutrients, precision application of herbicides and crop quality and safety parameters, said Darren Gedge, group technical innovation director at Cambridge-based international horticulture company, G’s.
“Celery is our second biggest crop and we are looking at sensing to develop flavour and taste. We are doing work on sweetness and bitterness with Nottingham University.”
The company is also trialling prototypes for spot weed control using sensors to precision apply herbicides, said Mr Gedge.
There is also scope to improve pest monitoring, he explained. “There are weather maps and stations across Europe so we can know which pests are migrating in and try different trapping methods. We’ve used suction traps for aphids and more latterly, camera traps where it identifies and counts the pest, linking to an interactive dashboard. It is a great tool but in bad weather there can be cloud cover, giving [satellite interference] problems – sensor technology may help.”
A better understanding of the soil and plant biome and interaction between different species of microbe is helping with plant disease diagnostics and understanding soil health.
Rob Stichbury, sales specialist at FungiAlert, a start-up based at Rothamsted Research, explained how a soil device incorporating sensors could be used in situ in the soil to collect and analyse fungi. “It is about the size of a cup and attracts soil fungi above a certain threshold over 7-10 days, depending on soil moisture and growing conditions. The sample can then be sent to the lab for analysis which takes 2-3 days.”
This is quicker than traditional methods and allows earlier agronomic intervention, said Mr Stichbury.
Examples of pathogenic fungi picked up include rhizoctonia, fusarium and phytophthora.
“Broadly speaking the sensors are useful pre-cropping to look at pre-season soil health, early detection of disease just after the crop has been planted and to inform pre-harvest and storage decisions.”
The test can also be useful where land is rented and a grower does not know its full history, he added.