Digital Farms and AgTech Startups - Towards Connected Agriculture

The agriculture of tomorrow is taking shape. Digital nuggets have the ambition to make it more productive, more ecological and to lift farmers out of isolation.

Digital Farms and AgTech Startups - Towards Connected Agriculture

Welcome to the Arvalis Digifarm, a project extending over 150 hectares in Boigneville for accelerating the innovation process. One of many Digifarms located in France which serve as experimental stations for collaborative projects of agricultural institutes' engineers and technicians.

On the Arvalis Digifarm, the first line of research aims to design a productive system of polyculture and livestock synergy. In this context, the autonomy of fodder systems, optimization of grazing using digital technologies, and protection of soils cultivated with plant covers are themes worked on at the farm. The establishment of multi-species grasslands is a solution to improve fodder autonomy. These meadows, combining several kinds of grass and vegetable, are more resistant to climatic stress and require little or no nitrogen inputs. Rich in protein, they also limit the purchase of nitrogen concentrates for animal feed.

In order to control weeds and protect water resources, a second study is underway to develop a comprehensive management model which integrates agronomy and landscape planning. The farm utilises the most up-to-date digital technologies to carry out these tasks; which include aerial mapping of weed infested areas by drone to better and destruction by robotics.

The aims of these digital technologies are to respond accurately and quickly to the major issues facing agricultural producers: technological-economic optimisation and the protection of the environment. Traceability of the interventions, recording of data by sensors, all lead toward a new level of precision in agriculture...

All the technologies that have proven their worth will gradually find their place among farms around the world.

Working Model To Real World Application

This project, set up a year ago in partnership with the technical institute of Terres Inovia and Acta, the network of institutes of animal and vegetable sectors in France, aims to test and "integrate digital techniques operational on farms", says Delphine Bouttet, lead researcher of the Arvalis Digiferme. Additionally, the aims are to "allow the producer to value their data simply and transparently in real time, without any input; while remaining master of his choices."

New technologies help farmers to monitor the plots more efficiently, thanks to satellite mapping platforms for watching weather forecasts and to better protect the environment by using robots to spread pesticides in a more targeted way and lighten the workload on operatives. They are also a great way to get the profession out of isolation. Marketplaces and social networks promote the sharing of advice, equipment and even data.

In Europe, projects are multiplying to draw in the agriculture of tomorrow. "Because the challenges are gigantic (global warming, limited water resources, diseases, but also health constraints on anti-infective and phytosanitary products) farmers are under pressure," explains Christian Huyghe, agricultural scientific director of the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). The sector must reconcile economic, technical and environmental performance, even though its revenues are in a constant state of flux in the wake of commodity prices and adverse weather effects.

Big Agricultural Data

The challenge is to select and network the best projects and technologies to provide turnkey solutions. DigitAg, an institute funded by investments for the future, aims to become a global reference for digital agriculture and to develop research companies in the field; through a partnership of seventeen actors: public research and teaching organisations, transfer-development actors and agricultural digital enterprises.

Start-ups will also be able to rely on the platform incubated by the Open Agrifood think tank and Greenflex; where some have already managed to convince major manufacturers into entering their capital ~ like Airinov with Parrot.

Florian Breton, co-founder of the association La Ferme Digitalale and the crowdfunding platform Miimosa recently outlined that "scaling up start-ups requires significant investment". "Fluctuations in prices and the impact of climate hazards on farmers are well known. We must invite investors to structure themselves to support the change of scale of these innovations."

As published in AgFunderNews, "Europe is home to world-leading knowledge institutes in food and agriculture, such as Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, Rothamsted Research in the UK, as well as agrifood giants like Bayer and Nestlé. Startup activity in food and agriculture innovation is also growing in Europe. In the last three years, investment activity has increased as many support resources for food and AgTech startups have emerged, including accelerators, incubators like StartLife and government programs."

"In the first half of 2017, investment in European agrifood tech startups represented 21% of global deals, up from 17% in the first half of 2014. Agrifood tech startups in Europe raised $770 million during the period, the second highest ever level for dollar funding levels after the record-breaking first half of 2015 ($1.3bn)."

One example of a start-up which brings transparency, precision farming, and the means to turn to the citizens to finance themselves and distribute their products is that of Green House Keeper.

The High-Tech Greenhouse Gardener

How to ensure a flourishing and productive garden without becoming a "prisoner", given the ongoing monitoring and maintenance that such a project imposes? This was the question that Pierre Joram, pharmacist and specialist in plant physiology, asked himself to ensure the growth of his collection of rare seeds, including times when he was forced to be absent from his collected works. 

What came about, was a climate-controlled computer system capable of automatically controlling the environmental parameters and revolution silence ec fans necessary for the proper development of his plants: temperature, humidity, nutrients, light cycle to reproduce the sunrise and sunset, and barometric pressure to simulate the seasons. Everything, controlled via a simple application from his computer, Smartphone or tablet!

"Such computers already exist, says Pierre Joram, but they are intended for large greenhouses, and therefore are very expensive - €10,000 against €600 for his version - and complicated to use." Aiming at the market of urban agriculture, Pierre Joram and his partner Pierre Richard decided to embark on the adventure of entrepreneurship and create their company Green House Keeper (GHK). At the end of 2015, they were integrated into the Irstea Minéa Incubator in Montpellier to refine their project and benefit from the expertise of the optical sensor specialists at Irstea's Information, Technologies, Environmental Analysis and Agricultural Processes (ITAP) research unit.

A Win-Win Collaboration

"Our sensors for climate and light data are now fully-operational!, continues Pierre Joram. "The goal of our collaboration with Irstea's scientists is to integrate sensors able to accurately identify the state of the plant and therefore it nutritional and environmental requirements." In the end, the young entrepreneur aims for a better performance of his intelligent system, adapting the parameters as close as possible to the needs of the plant, and thus also saving water, inputs and energy.

Alexia Gobrecht, head of the team at the ITAP research unit, further explains that "this partnership has allowed us to put into practice our research into optics and more specifically in spectrometry, imaging and signal processing. For us, this application raises new research questions, such as what is the best optical architecture to acquire the best signal or how to connect the signal to the actual state of the plant (health status, lack of state, etc.)."

Next Steps Already Taken

The start-up has just finalised an optimisation element of its device: the design of multi-spectral LED lamps, in other words, propagation lighting whose wavelength can be varied (therefore the colour of the emitted light) to meet the adapted needs of a culture and its stages of development. And already Pierre Joram thinks of the next challenges of GHK: adjust the device to more extensive areas to meet the needs of professionals (horticulturists, market gardeners, nurserymen ...) while maintaining its simplicity of use and an affordable price.