Drones and other image-capturing devices are delivering significant advances in crop analytics technology, but their real potential is yet to be unleashed.
Competition in the world of crop analytics is heating up as rival companies seek out new ways of observing crops to deliver their own unique selling point, says Louis Wells, solutions and services manager at BASF, lead partner in the 2018 Agri-Innovation Den.
“As well as capturing visual and NDVI images of crops, companies are looking at new wavelengths to improve their offering. This is just one example of the strides the sector is making.”
BASF has been working closely with crop analysis specialist Hummingbird Technologies, a finalist in the 2017 Agri Innovation Den, to help develop the technology and learn more about its application in practice.
Mr Wells says: “We want to be at the forefront of the emerging crop analytics sector, so we can understand better what it means for our grower and agronomist customers.
“I do not think crop analytics will replace agronomists – someone will still be needed to oversee operations, interpret the data and act on it. But it will make agronomists more efficient, putting key information at their fingertips.
“Delivering more precise insights will also support our chemical portfolio, helping to target specific timings and applications to improve yields and profits.”
Drones are being increasingly used for a range of agronomic tasks, such as weed mapping, disease monitoring and crop monitoring, and in creating variable rate seed and fertiliser maps. They can also count plants in crops such as lettuce and cauliflower to improve supply chain management.
Satellites are cheaper and can be used for some of these functions, but image resolution is currently inferior and can be thwarted by cloud cover, although emerging radar technology can help.
Mr Wells says: “Drones deliver more precise data in good detail. They do cost more and you have pay for a pilot or cost your own time if you fly it yourself.
“But the price of drones has fallen markedly, and the cost of flying them will follow. Rather than flying for tens of minutes, I think drones will soon be capable of remaining airborne for a whole day, flying whole farms, often by farmers themselves, with specialist companies processing the masses of data into a readily usable form.”
This season, drones have been flown across some of BASF’s Real Results Circle farms, where BASF is working with more than 50 farmers to trial products such as Xemium fungicides and develop new technologies under real farm conditions. BASF and Hummingbird are also operating two farm trials in the South West, assessing disease development across a range of wheat varieties throughout the season.
Arthur Soames, business development director at Hummingbird Technologies, believes data analytics is on the verge of exponential growth in agriculture.
Mr Soames says: “We will see more change in this area in the farming industry than any other over the nextfew years. Precision farming has been talked about since the 1980s, but advances in technology mean we are now reaching critical mass.”
The day when every serious farming business owns and operates its own drone is not far away. However, regulations such as line-ofsight restrictions need to change if the full benefits are to be realised.
Mr Soames says: “The technology required for autonomous drone operation already exists, and the systems required to process the vast amounts of data these flights will produce are in place.
“We are now pushing the regulators to acknowledge that commercial agricultural use is a world away from hobby drones being flown over populated areas or near airports.
“I believe it is only a matter of time before this is recognised. Farmers should be the first to take advantage of this autonomous technology, which would transform the way data is collected.”
The software is also set to make huge advances. Hummingbird Technologies is a leader in machine-learning technology– the more data its crop analysis systems gather and process, the more accurate they become.
Hummingbird’s algorithms are based upon thousands of data points ground-truthed by its agronomists. As the machinelearning algorithms learn from each verified data point, the products Hummingbird offers are constantly revised and improved.
Mr Soames says: “This will change things beyond recognition, revolutionising data-gathering systems.”
Hummingbird Technologies uses drones, fixed-wing aircraft and satellites to create high-resolutionmapping across a range of field crops. User-friendly data is returned to farmers within 24 hours of the flight, enabling more targeted use of inputs to help maximise yields, reduce costs and minimise environmental impacts.
To date the company has carried out more than 10,000 flights over 180,000 hectares (444,780 acres), and can scan 300ha (740 acres) a day, gathering data from across the visual and non-visual light spectrum. Investors include Beeswax Dyson and Velcourt, and the company is working in close partnership with BASF on a number of projects.
Mr Soames says: “In our partnership with BASF we are close to announcing some groundbreaking work which we believe will be the basis of a number of world-leading products.
“We are now addressing problems at the plant level, rather than the field level. BASF realises this is where the future is, and are really supportive of our work, developing technology that will enable them to engage with farmers at a deeper level.”
With so much variability in farming, such as unpredictable weather patterns, as well as the rising costs of inputs, the ability to accurately monitor crop performance with the use of drones opens up great potential for start-up agritech companies.
Dr Ali Hadavizadeh, programme manager for agri-innovation hub Farm491, says: “The ability to monitor crop performance remotely on a regular basis has the potential to reduce unnecessary crop losses. This ability enhances farmers’ bottom line profit by targeting inputs and reducing environmental impact.”
A business Farm491 has been involved with is Low Level Earth Observation (LLEO), which attended one of Farm491’s Inspiring AgriTech Innovation Programme bootcamps earlier this year.
The services LLEO provides include plant counting, leaf area index and crop health mapping – all beneficial in reducing inputs. As well as independent farms, LLEO has performed surveys for Bayer Crop Science and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Dr Hadavizadeh says: “The mainemphasis of the two-day freebootcamps is to put a strong business plan around innovativeideas. The success of thebusiness will ultimately rely on funding, be it grant or equityinvestment.
“The aim of the programme is to help de-risk the proposition for the investor community and put startups on the path of being long-term sustainable ventures.”
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Agri-Innovation Den is the perfect platform for fledgling businesses looking to accelerate growth.
Launched by Farmers Guardian’s parent company AgriBriefing in 2015, the competition invites agricultural entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas to a panel of industry judges and potential investors.
Six overall finalists will each win a unique agri-marketing and business advice package, worth more than £6,000, plus a chance to access a multi-million-pound funding pot.
The online entry process is open until September 14, 2018, at www.agriinnovationden.com