Traditionally innovation in the agricultural sector has, quite literally, been driven from the ground up to maximise yield (crop varieties, pest control) or has focussed on machinery and techniques to improve harvesting efficiency. However when, what, and how to farm still relies on the traditional judgement, experience and intuition of the farmer. But all this is set to change as big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) begins to make an impact, which has resulted in the emergence of a new sector – Agtech.
Localised in-field sensors that monitor soil conditions, such as moisture, temperature and electrical conductivity have recently emerged onto the market. Cropx utilise sensors to monitor soil conditions, helping farmers to grow more with less water. Cropx’s four pending patent families focus on the soil sensors and how to use and view information derived from an interconnected network of sensors. An alternative approach is used by Tule Technologies, whose solution looks at evapotranspiration from a field and compares this value to a reference. As these values diverge, irrigation can be managed to minimise plant stress and maximise yields.
Intelligent machinery, such as this yield monitoring harvester and soil/seed monitor from Precision Planting show how data is collated about processes in-situ to provide real-time data. Newer startups, such as Blue River Technologies have the heady goal of optimising the growth of every plant. Its three patents are focussed on identifying plants as the tractor/sprayer passes over them to generate a complete crop map. This allows individual plants to be highlighted and steps taken to address issues on a per-plant basis. Taking this intelligence a step further are automated robotic harvesters, such as developed by Harvest AI whose patents focus on control of the robots and the interface between the robot and the human picker.
The final area of focus is collation of this data to extract meaningful information. Satellite imagery, as shown by Farmers Edge and Descartes Labs can be used to track crop health on a daily basis. Companies like Farmers Edge and The Climate Corporation leverage all this information (crop health, soil conditions, weather et cetera) to determine optimal seeding densities, planting and harvesting timings. These macro data streams can be collated and used to create individualised field data and strategies for the farmer.
It is clear that Agtech holds great promise for tackling current and future challenges for the agricultural industry. Whilst at the moment, like the home automation market, there is a diverse spread of companies vying for attention, consolidation is beginning to happen. However, there is still plenty of scope for new startups, particularly outside the US. New opportunities, like Ripe.io’s block chain food supply vision are evidence of this.
After decades of economies of scale driving productivity, Agtech has the potential to move from a scale driven average-yield model to a tailored field-by-field, plant-by-plant model. This can only lead to increased crop growth, health, productivity and yield. Patent activity is currently muted, with a broad search for precision agriculture yielding around 300 results, but this is certainly a new sector to watch.