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Posted at: Apr 14, 2018, 12:55 AM; last updated: Apr 14, 2018, 12:55 AM (IST)

The farm multiplier

Drones, robots, artificial intelligence and lots more… technology is bringing about a revolution in agriculture

Vijay C Roy

Last month Mohali-based Agnext, agricultural sensing and solution company, won the Karnataka Grand Challenge Award for creating a pest and disease surveillance solution by using the latest technologies in artificial intelligence, agriculture imagery and crop growth modelling. Taranjeet Singh (38), IIT graduate and managing director of the three-year-old company, was awarded a cash prize of Rs 50 lakh. 

Working with the government of Karnataka, the company would deploy the solution for 12 major crops of the state.

The Pest and Disease Surveillance Project involved artificial intelligence-based image-processing application for pests and disease detection in crops, an internet of things-based pest detection system for farmers and satellite-based tracking of weather and crop health.

This technology would provide Big Data-based surveillance platform for the government, which could regularly inform farmers to take preventive steps based on data analytics from the deployed digital technologies.

Taranjeet Singh is not the lone example. A number of entrepreneurs across the country have been trying to revolutionise the agricultural sector by developing state-of-the-art technologies by deploying automation, artificial intelligence, internet of things (IoT), etc.

Why technology is important

Farmers have always been aware of varying aspects of the environment like changes in soil, water, weather and vegetation. However, they lacked the tools to measure, map and manage these variations. Today precision farming is helping manage variations in the field accurately to grow more food using fewer resources, thereby reducing production costs. It is  key component in the use of IT and various items like robotics,  sensors, control systems, autonomous vehicles, automated hardware, variable rate technology, and so on. 

The adoption of high-speed internet, mobile devices and reliable, low-cost satellites (for imagery and positioning) are a few key technologies characterising the trend in precision agriculture.

Smart farming will enable the farmers to reduce waste and enhance productivity. This will range from the quantity of fertiliser utilised to the number of journeys the farm vehicles have made. Here’s a look at the technology which has been creating ripples in the market.

Droning around

Agriculture is one of the major industries to incorporate drones. Drones are being used in agriculture to improve productivity. Ground and aerial-based drones are being used in agriculture for crop health assessment, irrigation, monitoring, spraying, planting, soil and field analysis.

The benefit of using drones include crop health imaging, integrated GIS (geographic information system) mapping, ease of use, saves time, and potential to increase yields. With strategy and planning based on real-time data collection and processing, the drone technology will give a high-tech makeover to agriculture industry.

Agnext is working with Haryana and Karnataka. In Haryana, it is working in Panchkula and Yamunanagar to map the existing crop and find crop potential area by remote sensing. The remote sensing data is processed through machine learning, and then, the pattern is analysed. The proposed project will help farmers, besides seed and fertiliser companies. 

The technology provider uses drones for gathering valuable data via a series of sensors that are used for imaging, mapping, and surveying the land. These drones perform in-flight monitoring and observations.

“From the drone data, we can draw insight regarding plant health indices, counting and yield prediction, height measurement, nitrogen content and weed pressure mapping” said Taranjeet Singh. He added that per acre cost for the deployment of technology comes to a few dollars. “It will be better if farmers hire collaborative service”, he says.

Another player Bengaluru-based CropIn Technology Solution utilises geo-tagging and satellite imagery to effectively monitor farm efficiency and improve financial, operational and agronomical aspects, thus bringing in more visibility, traceability and predictability in all farming operations, people and processes. The company product Smart Farm provides flexible farm management solution, which enables complete digitisation of farms, empowers data-driven decision making and provides complete visibility of people, processes and performance on the field.

According to Naininder Singh Dhillon, director of Punjab-based Pagro Foods, which does contract farming for vegetables on more than 1800 acres, “CropIn technology helped us in capturing data in real time — be it related to traceability or plant health. Since our crop days (vegetables) are 92 to 100 days, corrective action need to be taken in a time-bound manner and the real time helps us.”

Time for robotics

The use of robots to plant, reap and process grains will make the process more efficient and easier to perform on the scale required to feed the world’s growing population. Robots could also be used to monitor plant growth and the health of the crops, along with operations like harvesting, weed removal through laser and on-farm diagnostics. Bengaluru-based Green Robot Machinery is launching robots for picking cotton, brinjal and other crops by December this year. The field testing is already at an advanced stage.

“The robot has been designed in such a way that the computerised vision detects and locates the precise 3D coordinates of the bloomed cotton from the images of the plant. A robotic arm uses these coordinates to pick the cotton. The arm, then, uses a vacuum for precision picking of cotton and avoids picking any other contaminant,” says promoter Manohar Sambandam. According to Sambandam, the machine is being designed taking care of the cost of manual labour. “We are planning to bring the cost at par with manual labour so that it can operate even on small farms,” he added. The machine will be introduced on rental model. 

Hiring precision tools

Since most of the high-tech equipments are expensive, many entrepreneurs are providing as a service to the customers. These services will include seeding, weeding, harvesting and provide the complete end-to-end farming activities as a service. Many companies like EM3, Triingo (a Mahindra company), Zamindara, VST and are already offering farming services and the government is supporting entrepreneurs.

Low-cost storage

Recently, Ice Make Refrigeration Limited, manufacturer and supplier of cooling solutions equipment, launched an affordable solar-powered cold storage unit for the interior areas of Punjab and Haryana where proper storage temperature and adequate infrastructure is not available due to the non-availability of regular power. Around 30 per cent to 40 per cent of this produce perishes for the lack of adequate cold storage facilities. Customised for rural and semi-urban requirements, the product is economically viable and beneficial for farmers and other users in the supply chain.

The medium-sized cold room unit with a storage space of about four to five metric ton and costing around Rs 11 lakh to Rs12 lakh helps retain the quality, freshness, enhance shelf life and reduce wastage of temperature-prone perishable produce. Agnext has also launched a technology where a normal split AC can be deployed to create cold storage by deploying technology.

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