TECH | Nov 28, 2018

Precision Farming: do sensors, data and AI improve production?

The extent to which precision technology and agriculture improve the quality and quantity of crops

Only 2% of Italy’s agricultural land uses robots and sensors for Precision Farming“.

This was claimed a few months ago by the President of Coldiretti Puglia, confirming that diffusion of the practice of precision farming in Italy is patchy, with regions that put it into practice on less than 1% of the land, up to a maximum of 4-5%. However, these percentages are likely to increase, given that, according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Guidelines for the Development of Precision Agriculture in Italy, they should reach 10% in 2021; its diffusion in China, Israel and USA fluctuates between 40 and 70%. In recent years, a rapid increase has been recorded in Brazil, Argentina, India and Malaysia, although it is estimated that China will be the world’s largest user of Precision Farming in the very near future.

Yet the challenge that agriculture must rise to is important given that, faced with a world population that will number 9 billion people in 2050, production will have to increase by 70%.

Why precision farming?

Precision Farming is synonymous with “where needed, when needed”, in other words “a system that provides the tools to do the right thing, in the right place, at the right time” and makes it possible to increase agricultural productivity while ensuring environmental sustainability. All starting from the collection of data through sensors, from their processing and interpretation to reach identification of the best choices for sustainability, and agronomic and economic-management choices. Innovation should therefore support the management of resources (fertilizers and nutrients, seeds, plant protection products, fuels, water, soil, etc.) through control by machines that manage them, ensuring the traceability of processes and raw materials.

What are the limits of precision farming?

According to Francesco Tei, Director of the Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences Department at the University of Perugia, due to Italy’s agricultural conditions, the digital tools available show limits of applicability attributable in particular to costs that are too high and non-integrability with other tools. “Their use – Tei stressed during a recent convention on Precision Farming organized at the Ciuffelli Agrarian Institute in Todi – envisages the use of remote or proximal information, execution of open field scouting, processing of spatial variability data and a set of complex operations for the farmer that require too many skills external to the farm business“. These are all limits that should be overcome quickly thanks to research and experimentation increasingly oriented towards the development of reliable and easy-to-use technologies for the farmer.

What are the areas of application?

In the initial phase, Precision Farming has been applied especially in herbaceous cropping systems, in particular those based on cereal crops, on medium-large sized plots, often with little efficiency of uniform agronomic management in terms of space and time. Other applications can be found in arboreal cropping systems, and in viticulture, forestry and animal husbandry.

Future developments

Precision farming – says Angelo Frascarelli, lecturer at the University of Perugia – is not an accessory for beautifying the agricultural machine, but a tool for increasing profitability. In a situation of profound change in agricultural activity, the farmer and the contractor must actively participate in the process of innovation: propose new services to companies for increasing the profitability of their business, take advantage of the high turnaround of equipment to stay up-to-date on the latest technologies, specialize in certain techniques and services to be offered to third parties“.

The future of agriculture that knows how to innovate should be made of better business decisions and ability for intervention in crops. All thanks to the inflow of new tools able to dialogue in an advanced manner with the tractor and manage working parameters according to the needs of the tool, optimizing time and consumption; the use of drones that contribute to the collection and monitoring of geolocalized cultural and environmental data; and the introduction of Artificial Intelligence.

Agricultural production – says Andrea Cruciani, GIS and Precision Farming expert, CEO of the Agricolus startup – is the result of synergies between physical and biological elements and these interactions are characterized by sudden changes that we must observe and analyze over time. Due to climate changes and the variables that intervene in the system, the maintenance of optimal conditions is increasingly difficult and any errors in crop management can determine a decrease in yield, with serious damage to the economic sustainability of the company. Today, however, there are effective tools that are able to read the changes and increasingly precise and timely means for optimizing work and consumption of resources. Among the tools, satellite images, forecasting models and decision support systems (DSS) are able to help technicians and farmers in the analysis of decisions to be taken for intervening in the most appropriate time and place. Use of these technologies makes it possible to reduce the costs of crop management, increase the quality of products, safeguard the agroecosystem, determine the quantities of inputs necessary for cultivation for the administration of water and fertilizers, and optimize the operations to be performed“.