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Drones, sensors and AI: Welcome to the Fourth Agribusiness Revolution

Drones, sensors and AI: Welcome to the Fourth Agribusiness Revolution

AgricultureAnalysisDigital TransformationNetworkingSoftwareTop Stories

The agricultural sector will undergo transformations with access to new technologies, services and operating models to make the production of all types of food more efficient.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an extensive term that encompasses countless devices that, since the last decade, have begun not only to connect but also to interact with people and with each other autonomously.

Thanks to the aggregation of sensors, for instance, tiny connectors focused mainly on perceiving changes in the environment and sharing information with other devices to proceed accordingly.

Today, millions of sensors surround us almost imperceptibly but provide a significant amount of data with which people and companies make decisions without questioning their origin.

Mobile phones utilize sensors to determine motion, temperature and light and this impacts the  way they operate.

This means they turn the screen on at different speeds and adjust their alignment according to the data provided by the sensor.

Similarly, today’s vehicles have evolved considerably from what they were just a couple of decades ago, thanks to countless sensors that help with driving, stability, energy consumption, general safety for cargo and passengers, among other things. 

Thanks to sensors, a category of products of which we were barely aware of, the use of drones has become consolidated. You may associate them with rocket-like vehicles focused on the military industry, but what would you think if I told you that the first drones had a more peaceful purpose, concentrating on fieldwork?

In the late 1980s, Japan introduced a remote-controlled helicopter concept focusing on assisting in-country work. It aimed to make the countless slopes of the country’s mountainous island terrain more productive, particularly rice crops. 

Its acceptance and consequent success revolutionized agricultural production in pest control, controlled planting and harvesting, allowing an accelerated transformation and diversification of these devices to what we know today as drones.

But drones would be less effective if we take AI and connectivity out of the equation. Automation and the reduction of risky and repetitive processes have turned them into a real success. Today’s development of flying machines assist people in their daily tasks and new ones that emerge regularly and cover defense and security activities, design and engineering, recreation and aerial reporting. 

Thus, we focus on these three elements that emerge from Information Technology and telecommunications to generate essential transformations in the agricultural sector. 

Sensors and drones – allies in the Agro-Industrial Revolution

Edwin Sanchez, CEO of Virtuxplorer, an organization specialized in the workflow of drones, explains: “Sensors, AI and analytics, work with drones improving productivity, increasing efficiency and reducing costs. The result is the Digital Transformation in agribusiness.”

This revolution will encompass large plantations and livestock herds, small crops, poultry, fish farms and even land dedicated to environmental or ecological conservation. In short, drones and sensors combined with operations software can become valuable partners for farmers in Latin America.

“Latin American geography is varied and with extreme conditions, where small farmers find it difficult to use other industrial machinery, such as tractors. Drones can help in daily tasks such as planting, maintenance and pest control, with more precise and timely methodologies and with an excellent cost-benefit ratio,” said Sanchez.

By adding AI, drones gain autonomy and can determine, according to their programming, the right time to react to an alarm generated by a sensor. Thus, in this decade, we will see more and more autonomous drones solving problems previously challenging to manage.

Just as robots have arrived in homes and have taken over basic tasks, such as sweeping and mopping, drones will take their place in agriculture and other areas where their contribution will be invaluable.

For example, a set of sensors installed in a small plantation will tell drones whether to fumigate, spray water or even start harvesting trees and plants that are difficult for people to access.

Analytics and AI – determinants of innovation

According to the FAO, the United Nations entity for food and agriculture, humanity uses about 51 million square kilometers of land in agriculture, which must be optimized to provide food for society in constant growth. If we consider the figures from the WWF, humanity is consuming in 274 days what it should consume in a year.

That is when data analytics and the development of new solutions and more intelligent, autonomous and energy-efficient equipment become fundamental elements for agribusiness development.

By integrating valuable information provided by sensors and drones to Big Data and analytics solutions with ML (Machine Learning), people can access information and knowledge that was previously invisible and prevented proper decision-making.

“Farming with intelligence is part of the procedures demanded by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With this purpose, humanity is committed to improving the use of soil and water, optimizing crops, and developing the necessary technologies to improve increasingly precious resources today,” said Sanchez.

“At Virtuxplorer, we have developed methodologies and solutions that help solve this dilemma. Many people may believe that we are drone wholesalers or something similar, but this is far from what we do. We became the consultants and collaborators that allow the agricultural sector to improve its productivity indicators.”

New jobs and tasks

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) shows that drones in the agricultural and agro-industrial sectors will generate significant improvements and benefits.

Advances in drone technology will be reflected in reducing or eliminating processes, efficiency in energy use and technical tasks such as soil analysis, planting, monitoring and maintenance of crops, irrigation and sanitary analysis of plants and animals.

Looking ahead, this may involve fleets or swarms of autonomous drones that could tackle agricultural monitoring tasks collectively, as well as hybrid aerial-terrestrial drone actors that could collect data and perform a variety of functions, according to a study by MIT and PwC.

Today, we know that a new generation of jobs is emerging from developing technologies, hardware, software, applications, AI, analytics and learning solutions that will enrich the employment landscape by the middle of the next decade.

These new jobs will also arise from new businesses and start-ups. In this regard, investment expert Francesco Castellano comments in an article on the future of the drone business that “as drone hardware has become more affordable to produce and buy, manufacturing and hardware itself will not drive industry growth in the future. Instead, services that operate and manage drones for companies will generate most of the value.”

Thus, there will be software developers to analyze the information generated by crops; programmers of intelligent solutions to manage repetitive tasks in the field. There will also be remote operators for high-risk, time-consuming and labor-intensive tasks.

There will be experts in sensors. These will collaborate with telecommunications engineers so that drones can read the signals that these tiny devices provide to foresters, veterinarians, farm managers and accountants, who will see their production conditions improved thanks to the information from the sensors.

Finally, it will not be strange to have agricultural programming drones to analyze crop, soil, water and temperature data in various terrains and geographies. Even drone mechanics who will help maintain the army of flying robots that will accompany scythes, motor pumps and other devices, will seem a bit dated compared to the intelligence and autonomy of drones.

“Automating productivity, robotizing processes, seem to be actions of the industrial and commercial sector. Thanks to drones, analytics and sensors, the agricultural sector will be integrated into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, just as it happened a century ago when tractors and irrigation systems were introduced into the productive equation,” concludes Sanchez.

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