Agri-Tech Week 2018: Are modern farmers becoming overwhelmed with data?
PUBLISHED: 07:22 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 08:54 08 November 2018
From fleets of agribots to smart tractors and survey drones, the pace of agricultural innovation is quickening – but farmers should be wary of becoming overwhelmed with information in this data-driven world.
These were among the messages from the REAP (Realising our economic and agricultural potential) Conference in Cambridge, the centrepiece event of Agri-Tech Week 2018.
The annual showcase run by Agri-Tech East brought farmers and growers together with scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and investors.
While experts discussed emerging technologies, the conference hall was surrounded by exhibitors with new products including remote crop sensors, aerial survey equipment, data mapping and management tools for weather, soil, cropping and storage facilities – and the latest autonomous farming robots,
But while farmers are eager to benefit from the potential of such devices, one of the keynote speakers said unless the information captured was relevant to its intended use, it could actually hamper decision-making rather than enhancing it.
Prof Gerard Parr, head of the School of Computing Sciences at the University of East Anglia, said: “Living in rural South Norfolk, I can see how technologies have really empowered the farming community and all the additional industries around it.
“But there is a lot of hype going on. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, mega data... there’s a lot of expectation that these technologies will solve everybody’s problems. As an engineer and a technologist I can tell you they don’t.
“Technology sometimes gets in the way and we have to be very very careful that whatever we put in place is built around the consumer. In the case of the agri-tech sector, it must be built around the farming community, who have a historical domain knowledge that technology will never be able to capture in the short term.
“We cannot stand still. The notion of future farms and where technology can get involved – you all know many examples you have already embraced in your day-to-day living whether it is automated milk production, sensing the yield in the field, looking at chemical composition – the range of hardware and software out there is mind-boggling and it is only going to increase, but it has to have some context, it has to have some relevance.
“All this data is like a tsunami, but to what extent is the data all useful for your purposes? You know best, so if you are generating all sorts of data I would ask you to take a look and say: ‘Do you use every attribute of all the data that has been captured every day that you are working in the field?
“There is an issue here of ‘data, data everywhere’ – data that is being captured for the sake of being captured. We need to look at the contextualisation of this data and how it is being used. Is it helping you make better decisions or is it actually getting in the way of making decisions because you are over-whelmed with data?”
Dr Ji Zhou, who introduced the audience to the AirSurf automated crop surveillance and analytics software being developed at the Earlham Institute in Norwich, added: “We are generating data which cannot be properly interpreted without a human being. If you look at a terabyte of data it looks very fancy, but you need a brain to extract meaningful information from it.
“We are facing a huge amount of data every day, with fluctuating market and weather conditions, and how we extract meaningful factors and eventually turn it into knowledge that we can use to answer questions in our agricultural practices is the key to us being successful.”
The conference also featured a “start-up showcase” which included two new Norfolk companies: Receptive Technologies, which has developed an app aimed at reducing farming’s poor accident record by digitising health and safety checks and compliance reports, and Axomap, whose remote sensing drone makes it easier to harvest high-value products at the right time by identifying individual potatoes with higher dry matter content, which make the best crisps.
‘WORLD-FIRST’ FARMBOT TAKES CENTRE STAGE
The world’s first robotic seed drill prototype for cereal crops was unveiled at the 2018 Agri-Tech Week conference – just 12 months after its makers pitched their concept at last year’s event.
“Harry” is a spider-shaped smart robot, which works as a driverless drill which accurately plants seeds at a uniform depth, with minimal soil disturbance. It records exactly where it has placed individual seeds, and feeds this data back to an artificial intelligence platform, called Wilma.
The machine is one of a team of three precision-engineered smart robots being developed by the Small Robot Company.
“Tom”, already being trialled on farms, monitors every single plant in a field and identifies the difference between crops and weeds like black-grass or brome, and records thousands of images to be analysed and mapped by Wilma.
And “Dick”, still in development, will carry out remedial work based on this plant-level data, accurately targeting weeds for micro-spraying and mechanical weeding. Directed by Wilma, the farmbots will only feed and spray the plants that need it, giving them the perfect levels of nutrients. The company claims this could cut chemicals and emissions by up to 95%.
Fourth generation farmer Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, said he expects Harry to be ready for commercial work in the next 18 months to three years – demonstrating the speed at which new technologies are advancing.
“This stuff has moved way beyond some kind of fevered fantasy of the future of farming,” he said. “For years it was talked about as a vision for 2050. But it really won’t take that long. The pace of change is very rapid.
“12 months ago, I was in the conference hall pitching this with a slide deck. A year later we are unveiling a robot here and we have another doing some actual work nearby at the Wimpole Estate. We have got 20 farms signed up, including some big players around the eastern counties.
“We are launching a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube, which is an oportunity to own shares in the brand. We are preparing to invest seven or eight times the money in 2019 that we did in 2018, so this technology will develop really quickly.”
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