April 3, 2023 at 4:09 pm | Updated April 3, 2023 at 4:09 pm | 10 min read
The world faces critical challenges like limited land and water resources, harmful environmental effects caused by excessive agrochemicals and heavy farm machinery use, and the increasing demand for food and biomass. However, several new agtech innovations are showing great potential to overcome these issues by increasing food production and quality with fewer resources and by addressing the problems caused by traditional agriculture. In this article, we will discuss some of the exciting agtech innovations that are expected to revolutionize farming practices.
1. Bee Vectoring Technologies
Figure 1: Bee vectoring technology, BVT. (Image credits: VectoriteBVT.com)
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One of the most imaginative agtech incorporates nature to provide a sustainable, targeted disease and pest management system, which operates the entire season. Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) uses commercially-reared bumble bees to deliver natural pesticides to flowers and plants when they visit crops to collect nectar.
The bees collect the powder kept in a tray at the entrance as they move in and out of the hive to pollinate fields, see Figure 1. The powder in the tray can be a mixture of more than one compound targeting several pest and disease problems. The amounts carried and deposited by bees are tiny, reducing chemical use to around five gms per acre and avoiding using water or heavy machinery. As a result, there is no application over non-targetted and environmentally sensitive areas.
This technology can increase yield by 25 percent by improving flower and plant health. It applies to strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, sunflowers, apples, and canola.
The bumble bees are unharmed in the process. The system was designed for natural biocontrol powder containing a fungus that promotes plant health. However, the system can also be used for agrochemicals.
2. Laser Scarecrows
Figure 2: Laser scarecrow. (Image credits:https://vegetablegrowersnews.com/article/laser-scarecrows-studied-to-deter-birds-from-fields/)
Loss of grains, vegetables, corn, and fruits due to consumption by bird pests can reduce yield by 75 percent within two days. Solutions like stationary scarecrows and others only temporarily affect birds like crows, starlings, and blackbirds. Rebecca Brown, a plant science professor at the University of Rhode Island, has developed a laser scarecrow that emits green laser light up to 600 feet away, see Figure 2. Birds are sensitive to green light, perceive it as a solid object, and are startled by it. Farmers who have tried the agtech report up to 85 percent less crop damage.
Since people can’t see the light and the technology is silent, it doesn’t disturb them. Moreover, cheap LEDs lights have made the device cost-effective and affordable even for small farmers. Furthermore, the apparatus is not labor-intensive or environmentally damaging. Connecting the instrument to a solar panel can charge the batteries necessary for the device.
3. Co-robotic Harvesting Aiding Platforms
Figure 3: Variable-height zone harvesting platform, Fei & Vougioukas, 2021. (Image credits: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compag.2020.105894)
We will see more farm automation innovation in 2023 as farm labor shortages show no sign of easing. Initial automation innovations that have started will grow, such as autonomous systems for spraying to remove weeds, pests, diseases, and fertilizer application.
Now the focus is on more precise and challenging operations, such as thinning, pruning, and harvesting trees in orchards. Traditionally farm operators have used ladders to reach the higher branches or all parts of a tree canopy. The latest in farm automation are robotic platforms that eliminate traditional ladders. The robotic platforms can be moved up to adjust the vertical position of people working. The platforms also move horizontally to carry people between the trees. These systems are envisaged for orchards that use high-density planting to create fruiting walls of vegetation.
Adoption has been slow due to high costs and insufficient savings. The new system also has operational inefficiency due to differences in the picking speed and distribution of fruits and the speed of the platforms. Universities are working to correct the defect by adding advanced sensing to locate fruiting areas to adjust platform speed. There will also be bots lifting the platforms to the required heights.
The variable-height zone harvesting model is expected to improve harvesting efficiency by 9.5 percent over human-controlled platform moving speed. In contrast, the latter was already twice as fast as traditional ladders, see Figure 3.
4. Autonomous Fruit Picker
Figure 4: An autonomous fruit picker. (Image credits: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2019/05/10/root-ai-unveils-a-ripeness-detecting-tomato-picking-robot.html)
The number of autonomous machines to harvest delicate fleshy vegetables and fruits is expected to increase. Fresh produce that was carefully handpicked can now be harvested by smart and AI-powered machines.
The automatic fruit picker performs many steps. A camera and sensors scan the fruits for external color and quality to estimate ripeness and quality, to choose ripe fruits. The arm of the robot grabs the fruit and picks and places it in the storage area. The picking is done without bruising the tomatoes; see Figure 4. Moreover, depending on logistic needs, the machine can be optimized for different ripeness levels.
One company is trying to make a picker to harvest several fruits. In contrast, many others are being developed to pick one kind of fruit or vegetable specifically. Virgo picks tomatoes in greenhouses but could be soon used for strawberries and cucumbers. The machine can work 24 hours a day and in darkness.
5. Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) Technology
Figure 5: “Watermelon seedling location and plant growing zone maps: a – watermelon seedling locations and plant growing zones generated from RTK GPS coordinates, b – watermelon seedling locations and plant growing zones generated from actual coordinate,” Karayel et al. 2012. (Image credits: UDK 631.531.04:631.811.98)
Real-time kinematic (RTK) is an agtech that improves the accuracy of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), like Global Positioning System (GPS), Galileo, GLONASS, and Beidou.
RTK makes remotely sensed maps centimeter-level accurate, whereas GPS alone accuracy was only 2-4 meters. However, this was not precise enough for precision agriculture operations like sowing, weeding, agrochemical, and irrigation applications, see Figure 5.
The RTK technology uses fixed base stations to make corrections so that the maps growers use are precise and provide stable multi-year positioning.
RTK can control fully and semi-autonomous vehicles. New farm machinery has the RTK technology integrated. Farmers with older farm equipment have found it expensive to install base stations in their fields or access a commercial base station through subscriptions.
6. Controlled Environment Agriculture
Figure 6: “The layout of a vertical farm. (1) A multi-tier system with light-emitting diode (LED) lighting elements; (2) a hydroponic system; (3) a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) unit; (4) CO2 fertilization; (5) thermally well-insulated and airtight walls; and (6) an environmental (i.e., light, temperature, humidity, CO2, and airflow) and nutrient solution (i.e., electrical conductivity (EC), pH, O2, root zone temperature) control unit,” Gerrewey et al., 2021. (Image credits:https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy12010002)
Controlled environment agriculture, or indoor farming, refers to technologies such as hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics that can be used in greenhouses or vertical farms, see Figure 6. Hydroponic vertical farms grow microgreens, herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, flowers, and berries. Among the technology, aeroponics is expected to increase as it promises the most water savings. The crops grown in indoor farming are also likely to diversify, as supply chain issues make importing vegetables and fruits expensive and challenging.
Having indoor farms inside urban areas can have the advantage of reducing transportation costs and generating jobs. However, the high energy needed for lighting remains a drawback. There is ongoing work to use advanced LEDS, plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria, and aquaponics to reduce costs, and make the system more economically viable, even in the short run.
The use of drones in agriculture is expected to increase by 35 percent up to 2027. They will be used to photograph the fields for scouting to identify crop health, seedling emergence percentage, standing biomass, weed, pest or disease stress, and nutrient or water deficiency. Software analytics analyze the images to give farmers insights into their farms. Farmers can finetune the application of agrochemicals and water using variable rate application techniques to optimize input distribution based on actual plant status. As a result, agriculture can become more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Figure 7: An autonomous drone harvesting apple. (Image credits: https://www.tevel-tech.com/)
Drones are also being used for agrochemical applications, and this aspect is becoming autonomous too. Autonomous drones to pick fruits like apples are also designed to solve labor shortage problems, see Figure 7.
In addition, innovative applications like drones to seed hard-to-reach mountain slopes can help in afforestation and reforestation projects to solve several environmental issues like deforestation and landslides, assist in rainwater harvesting, and build up groundwater resources.
Figure 8: “Schematic overview of the sections covered in this review. Green tea extract (epigallocatechin gallate) is used as an example of a natural antioxidant, created with biorender.com. Different bioplastics are utilized to form the substrate of active packaging,” Westlake et al., 2022. (Image credits: ACS Food Sci. Technol. 2022, 2, 8, 1166-1183)
Numerous research and development efforts in packaging materials and active methods are ongoing and have entered the market to address the transport and storage needs of the wide range of food we consume, see Figure 8.
Active packaging creates controlled atmosphere conditions customized for each food type- fresh vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, and processed products. The packaging is designed so that food can stay fresh, retain its attractive appearance and targetted quality, and have a longer shelf life. The amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen is manipulated to cut respiration rates and ethylene production for fresh produce.
These technological developments help extend food marketing and storage time, reducing spoilage and loss. In many cases, they eliminate or reduce the need for ice, or controlled atmosphere storage and transport facilities, that require energy and are not eco-friendly. Increasingly, research is focused on finding biodegradable materials for active packaging that can replace plastic to solve one of the biggest environmental problems of our time.
Felix Instruments Applied Food Science’s F-920 Check It! Gas Analyzer has been made to precisely monitor gas content in active packages’ headspace and helps support newer emerging agtech.
9. Agtech for Animals
Figure 9: Optimized microclimate to keep piglets and their mother warm. ( Image credits: Farrpro)
Automated milking systems have been around for a while. Nowadays, dairy farmers scan milk for real-time online or offline analysis to measure milk quality and look for diseases that a cow may have. The dairy owner can change and optimize feed mixtures for the best-prescribed milk quality. Moreover, early identification of mastitis will enable them to isolate and treat ill cattle to contain the infection and ensure animal health.
Similarly, Near Infrared spectroscopy-based tools help optimize feed mixes for other animals like pigs and chickens by measuring the quality of feed materials.
Other innovations that seek to improve animal welfare are ear tags on pigs that transmit data on the animal’s body temperature and any sign of illness to enable early treatment. Or having a heating system using thermostats for newborn piglets and their mothers to provide them with proper warmth to reduce piglet mortality and make them comfortable, see Figure 9.
10. Sustainability Accountability
Figure 10: Swiim certification logo to prove water saving. (Image credits: https://swiim.com/solution/certification/)
People also want to know where and how their food is produced. While agtech can reduce water, energy, and resource, quantifying and showing the data can help make the supply chain more transparent.
Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management (Swiim) offers software solutions for crop optimization, water management, and reporting. The software reports the water used throughout a crop cycle. Growers can use the data to prepare a water audit to see how they meet their sustainability goals.
Using this data, growers can get a certification to prove the water savings they have achieved. The agency provides a third party, “SWIIM Certification™,” to confirm crop-water budgets.
Growers should be able to prepare similar publishable budgets to show other resource savings through precision agriculture reports. This way, they can ensure transparency in sustainability claims. We predict that such certification will increase this year and beyond.
Horticultural Precision Tools
Precision tools for fresh produce are not new. However, public perception of the role and services of quality meters and gas analysis tools is lacking. Such portable devices used at various critical points in the supply chain can provide objective, quantifiable data on internal fruit quality or the atmospheres in controlled atmosphere spaces. So far, this information has been used by individual stakeholders. However, sharing this data and information upstream and downstream can increase accountability and win the trust of associates. Moreover, it can make collaborations possible to improve food quality by monitoring quality changes in the food supply chain to increase sustainability.
CNBC. (2019, May 11). This tomato-picking robot is more efficient than humans and can work 24/7. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/video/2019/05/10/root-ai-unveils-a-ripeness-detecting-tomato-picking-robot.html
Fei, Z., & Vougioukas, S. G. (2021). Co-robotic harvest-aid platforms: Real-time control of picker lift heights to maximize harvesting efficiency. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture, 180, 105894. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compag.2020.105894
Fried, B. (2023, February 15). Council post: Three agriculture technology trends to watch in 2023. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2023/02/14/three-agriculture-technology-trends-to-watch-in-2023/?sh=58db174c41c1
Karayel, D., Topakci, M., Unal, I., Šarauskis, E., & Canakci, M. (2012). Using real-time kinematic (RTK) global positioning system(GPS) for the determination of seedling distributionsover the field. Žemdirbystė=Agriculture, 99 (4), 425–430. UDK 631.531.04:631.811.98
NRIi co-robotic harvesting Orchard Platform. Vougioukas Stavros. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://faculty.engineering.ucdavis.edu/vougioukas/research/projects/co-robotic-harvesting-orchard-platform/
Real-time kinematic technology use and costs – grainews. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.grainews.ca/features/real-time-kinematic-technology-use-and-costs/
Tayebi A, Gomez J, Fernández M, de Adana F S, Gutiérrez O. Low-cost experimental application of real-time kinematic positioning for increasing the benefits in cereal crops. Int J Agric & Biol Eng, 2021; 14(3): 194–199.
URI researcher: Laser scarecrows successful at keeping birds from eating sweetcorn. University of Rhode Island. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://www.uri.edu/news/2019/08/uri-researcher-laser-scarecrows-successful-at-keeping-birds-from-eating-sweetcorn/
Van Gerrewey, T., Boon, N., & Geelen, D. (2021). Vertical farming: The only way is up? Agronomy, 12(1), 2. https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy12010002
Westlake, J. R., Tran, M. W., Jiang, Y., Zhang, X., Burrows, A. D., & Xie, M. (2022). Biodegradable active packaging with controlled release: Principles, progress, and prospects. ACS Food Science & Technology, 2(8), 1166–1183. https://doi.org/10.1021/acsfoodscitech.2c00070
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