DiPP - Remote sensing-based farming: the sky is the limit
There is no doubt that agriculture is a prime area for digital transformation. As would happen in other fields though, this transition is no picnic: a number of prerequisites have to be met to secure smooth, productive sailing.
Head of Integrated Applications and Downstream Services Department, European Space Agency
Research and Development Director, NEUROPUBLIC SA
Tamme van der Wal
Data Scientist Spatial Knowledge Solutions, Wageningen University and Research
Head of technology, Bayer CropScience
EU Government Affairs Manager, Microsoft
Director General at DIGITALEUROPE
This lively conversation found that we should aim at creating harmony between a variety of objectives (cost, productivity, quality of service, environment, etc.), of constraints (IP, data protection, copyright, legal and business restrictions etc.) and of stakeholders (public and private satellite operators, IT companies, agronomists & farmers etc.) involved in this extended value-chain. It takes stretching this musical metaphor only a bit to argue that modulation is perhaps the new name of 21st century regulation.
Suppliers of satellite imagery, connectivity, machinery, fertilizers, etc. should display humility if they want to help this transformation happen. Indeed, on taking decisions farmers welcome intelligible assistance, not prescriptions that don’t bring added value to their work. They want to keep being in charge, a claim that should be heeded since it originates with people who know inside out the grounds they operate in: instead of instructions they need high quality advice tailored to their needs. The change of paradigm from a linear to a systemic innovation model, the change of guard between generations, the recognized necessity at EU level for a smarter, leaner and cleaner agriculture and many related developments show that now is the right time to make active partners of those all too often switched into a passive mode.
This is where advisory service providers (IT companies, researchers and agronomists) come into play. You would think that digital technology brings about disintermediation. Indeed ICT-enabled supply chains can do away with the middleman: farmers don’t need an education as long as they’re provided with remote sensor-driven decision tools, or so goes the theory. But the question is: is remote sensing a daily task for the farmer? Is the farmer able to interpret a map, deal with its uncertainty and integrate its content in his decision-making process? And if not, how can the farmer benefit from Remote sensing and Earth Observation data? An “agreement for innovation” between farmers, their organizations & advisory services providers can help farmers turn data science into business models intended for them, not for their suppliers. By combining scientific knowledge and data coming from IoT infrastructures and Earth Observation platforms with detailed awareness of the local context, this business model makes economic and commercial sense to the farmers concerned and allows them to keep their decision-making ability. No harm of course if they improve overall farming across Europe in the process. In order to assist farmers in making the most of information collected through remote sensors, nothing beats co-designing, co-developing and running pilot tests of smart farming services. Call the result Data Science as a Service if you need a catchword, the winning offering is the one that looks inviting and easy-to-use enough to be picked up by farmers in the field.
This approach points to a few critical factors:
– making the most of available platforms: the unparalleled marketplace they afford their users can easily turn into a minefield on those who fail to master IP rights, privacy, data ownership and other restrictions to business. A guiding hand is therefore welcome to cut a safe, ever-compliant path into a mostly appealing territory that might prove treacherous occasionally.
– fine-tuning industry-sourced solutions helps contain the investment risk, through Public-Private Partnerships for instance.
– avoiding pitfalls and hedging risk is fine, but you also want optimal result. In this respect, a Dutch report quipped that ‘everybody except the farmer is doing precision farming’ to flag the fact that some business models may meet suppliers’ needs or those of environmentalists and keep farmers short-changed at the same time. Whether or not based on remote sensing, the right solution has to be farmer-centric. Meanwhile, technology will keep on upping the ante as exemplified by quantum computing, poised to give ‘precision’ a brand-new meaning: a number-crunching task that got discarded because it would take decades to complete will now take only days.
– making adequate infrastructures available is a prerequisite to enable farmers to take charge. In this particular respect, the EU makes a whole gamut of instruments available, from dedicated funds like the ‘European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development’ to more horizontal ‘European Strategic and Investment Funds’ or to the ‘European Fund for Strategic Investment’ brand new flagship. In light of the positive track-record of these funds, the EU may even do more to enable farmers to take advantage anytime anywhere of the terabytes of data churned out on a daily basis by Copernicus, for example. Joint advocacy may therefore be a consideration for ICT and farmers’ trade associations.
Indeed, the question that keeps nagging all stakeholders is about the root cause of the enduring gap between the promises of ICT and its relatively slow uptake in the farm. While remote sensing is clearly a missing link in this respect, technology is not to be blamed: remote sensing may be oversold, it may underperform occasionally, but drones can under certain conditions substitute satellite as a source for imaging whenever necessary, at a higher cost though.
In any case, crop-embedded sensors or those in the soil (proximity sensing) should also be combined with data coming from the sky as well as from other resources in order to form the ecosystem that we call smart farming.
The real challenge won’t sound outlandish to the followers of the ‘Digital in Practice Programme’ as this theme reverberates across more than one sector considered so far: technology’s ultimate test is how it is appropriated by humans it is made for.