Smart sensors will help feed growing world population
The EU-funded ANTARES project is developing smart sensor and big data technologies that will help farmers produce more with fewer inputs and put Europe at the vanguard of the digital revolution in agriculture.
© yanadjan #218038263 , source: adobe.stock.com 2019
Global population is rising fast by 2050, it is projected to reach 9.8 billion, meaning the world will need to almost double its food production to feed its people. At the same time, agriculture is facing tough challenges including climate change, environmental concerns and land-use pressure.
The EU-funded ANTARES project is working at the forefront of a digital revolution in agriculture to address these challenges. The project is developing smart sensor and big data technologies that could help farmers produce more food in a way that is sustainable for society, farm incomes and the environment.
Currently, we do not understand all the scientific processes behind plant growth, says ANTARES project coordinator Vesna Bengin of the University of Novi Sad, Serbia. Meanwhile, climate change is effectively wiping out hundreds of years of farm-based knowledge thats been handed down the generations. Digital agriculture can boost knowledge and yields, reduce inputs and investment and increase resilience to risks like changing weather and price volatility.
Sensors disguised as pebbles
The projects innovative farm-based sensors are designed to gather as much information as possible. They include sensors mounted on robots that automatically travel around the farm, sensors attached to animals and plants, hand-held sensors and sensors like pebbles that are scattered on a field. They are capable of tracking factors such as soil moisture levels, monitoring plant health and detecting animal disease such as cow mastitis.
Project scientists are also gathering even more data from remote sensors using satellite imaging, drones and thermal and hyperspectral cameras. We want to know everything there is to know about a plant, from the air, soil and water that sustains it, to the process of photosynthesis that goes on inside the plant, says Bengin.
The massive amounts of data are fed into big data machines, which interpret it using artificial intelligence. Tailored algorithms can then make precise recommendations to farmers. For example, an algorithm could tell a farmer exactly when plants need water, how much fertiliser is needed in any given field, or what crops to plant when and where. A farmer with a 5 000-hectare farm can save EUR 1 to 1.5 million just by planting the right crops in the right place using the projects algorithms, Bengin says.
Meanwhile, the farms environmental footprint can be reduced through precision agriculture. The algorithms can tell a farmer exactly how much nitrogen each plant needs to avoid nitrogen leakage into the soil, when pesticides are needed to avoid overuse and exactly how much water is needed to help the plant grow well and limit waste.
To make their findings accessible to farmers, the project is developing an app called AgroSense. It allows farmers to track the real-time development of their crops from a computer or mobile phone, while also helping them plan their crops to maximise yields and profits.
The free app allows even small-scale farmers to access useful information gained from remote sensors such as the EUs Copernicus satellite system. For example, a farmer might be able to understand why some fields are more productive than others, or see which crops work best where. Meanwhile, a larger farm with on-farm sensor technology could access very precise information on crop development.
Our unique approach has already been recognised on an international level as our scientists have won first prizes in a number of global-level competitions, says Bengin.