The first human farmers in the UK are thought to have emerged around 6,000 years ago – the New Stone Age, with permanent settlements and new tools transforming traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
21st century farming mirrors much of this – we have land and labour, use tools and machinery, breed animals and grow crops; all of which operate within government, capital and market frameworks. Today, the context within which we farm is highly complex and sometimes contested, with factors such as a growing population, biodiversity loss and climate crisis all playing a part in how we farm now and the choices we make for the future.
Modern agriculture requires continuous land, crop and resource management. Integral to this is the ability to make informed choices in a cost-competitive and environmentally-conscious way. As such, new technologies are increasingly enabling farmers and land managers to make data-informed decisions – seeing agriculture fast become a data-rich industry with a demand for data and spatial information. From precision farming and predictive weather analytics to crop and soil management, these farm-focused innovations are not only key to improving efficiency, productivity and profitability; they also aim to solve climate challenges such as sustainability, biodiversity and net zero emissions.
The United Nations recognises how critical digital innovation is to agriculture, having recently said: “the next agricultural revolution will be driven by the accelerated application of smart, digital and precision agricultural technologies”.
It is no wonder, then, that record amounts of capital are being invested in agri-tech worldwide, with the global market estimated to be worth $21.9bn in 2023 and $40bn by 2030. Of the £186bn invested in agri-tech companies globally between 2000 and 2021, £80bn has been in European companies and £8.6bn in UK companies. Looking to be at the forefront of this innovation, the UK government invests around £320m in agri-tech research every year.
The digital ecosystem that makes up ‘agri-tech’ comprises many moving and interconnected parts, including geospatial technologies, farmers, finance, insurance, government, logistics, regulations and infrastructure. This makes it a vast and complex space, but also a dynamic and exciting one as investment continues apace and new possibilities emerge.
‘Digital innovation for people, place and planet’ is Calvium’s mantra and the team is motivated by applying our considerable skills in ways that make life better for people and for nature. In order to get a better sense of the direction of travel of the agri-tech sector and the ways that digital innovation is being applied in the real world, I have taken a quick scan of the ‘field’. Below you will find tangible examples demonstrating how geospatial technologies – GPS satellites and drones, GIS technologies, weather stations, smartphones, sensors, AI and AR – are helping to create a more sustainable future for people and the planet.
Here’s what I found.
Harvesting crops and data
With the current cost of living, reduced labour supply and mounting environmental concerns, improving harvesting techniques and efficiency is essential to ensure food production is sustainable, scalable and can support our growing population for generations to come. Highlighting the scale of this challenge, an estimated 11 billion people are expected to need food by 2100.
In the short and long-term, the need to improve production, inform weather-based action, improve soil quality and nutrition, and adjust irrigation, etc, is clearly driving much of this innovation.
Predictive weather analytics
Thanks to the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, weather forecasts are becoming more accurate and reliable. This is handy for everyday living, helping us to decide whether to pack sun cream or an umbrella; for the agriculture sector, it has been transformative. While aiding decisions around when to plant, water or harvest crops, these technologies can alert to the likelihood of floods, droughts or fires, enabling significantly better planning and prevention.
Demonstrating how far this technology has come, Indonesian startup Mertani’s solar- and sensor-powered weather station can monitor temperature, humidity, pressure, wind speed and direction, rainfall, solar and ultraviolet radiation, and soil temperature, moisture and electrical conductivity. All of this information is available via a smartphone app that provides microclimate reports, allowing users to monitor climatic conditions 24/7.
French startup HD Rain, meanwhile, provides high-resolution, real-time rainfall measurements using sensors that measure the influence of rainfall on waves coming in from TV satellites. Algorithms are used to measure and predict rainfall, minute by minute, with up to 500m accuracy. For agro-industrial company Touton, this technology not only provides forecasts and warnings for on-site teams in Ivory Coast, but the data history means they can also anticipate cocoa price fluctuations.
In order to achieve maximum yield, farmers and land managers must ensure optimal crop health all year round. With many acres of land and multiple crops to look after, this is one area where precision farming techniques are proving to be incredibly beneficial.
Given their ability to cover large areas with heavy payloads, powered by clean energy, drones are quickly providing a more sustainable and cost effective alternative to helicopters when it comes to crop maintenance.
Agricultural manufacturer John Deere and urban mobility solutions company Volocopter launched the first large agriculture drone in 2019. The fully-electric VoloDrone can cover up to 40km with the potential to carry up to 200kg, with capabilities ranging from difficult topography to increased efficiency in the use of crop protection agents, sowing seeds or frost control. Its GPS control, meanwhile, means it can achieve more selective area-specific treatments as well.
Many drones are now built to have different devices attached, such as pesticide containers, pumps and spray bars, which means they can serve a variety of farming needs. Attaching Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) cameras can further help to enhance precision farming. Drone Tech Aerospace’s NDVI technology, for example, creates sophisticated 3D terrain maps which provide information on critical factors such as plant health and stress levels, optimised fertiliser use, nitrogen management, identifying pests, weeds and plant disease.
Big data and planning
Data and interactive tools are giving farmers and land managers a new level of control, helping to both increase knowledge and awareness and allow for better planning and management. The Envirocrops tool we developed for Crops for Energy, for instance, enables farmers and land managers to investigate the suitability and profitability of growing energy crops – low maintenance crops grown solely for the production of bioenergy – on different land sites.
Based on decades of manual data and insights, the decision support app includes the information needed to predict how well some different species of trees and energy crops should grow across Britain, ultimately promoting clean energy to meet net zero goals. Underlying calculations include: species of trees and energy crops; how well each crop will grow in a local area considering soil type, exposure and land use, identified by a postcode; how much land is needed for each crop in each location to reach a certain yield; time until yield is delivered. The app also gives information on how to start the process, how much it is likely to cost and the likely financial returns.
Another example of how big data can influence decision-making, this interactive tool from the UK’s Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) allows farmers to see harvest progress across the UK. It provides information at a regional and national level, giving year-on-year comparisons and analysis of weather conditions and specific problems encountered. With this level of granularity, farmers can track seasonal and long-term trends, estimate crop productivity and spot crucial opportunities in the market to maximise profit.
Low emission, smart agriculture
With around one quarter of global gas emissions coming from food and agriculture, the decarbonisation of farming methods – from production to transport – is essential to ensure long-term sustainability.
Farmers are becoming increasingly aware of their impact too, with 64% of UK farmers believing it is important to consider greenhouse gases when making farm business decisions.
As part of this drive, we are seeing more electric vehicles take to the fields and sky – from the VoloDrone mentioned above to this John Deere utility tractor, which allows more than 10,000m2 of lawn to be mowed with one battery charge.
Not only are they emission-free and low noise, as these vehicles become more advanced they are including smarter features too. Some such features allow them to take direction from sensors and drone imaging, including GPS-controlled steering and route planning, while deep-learning and sensing suites – like those seen in this Monarch tractor – can be used for real-time adjustments, long-term yield estimates, and other plant/crop health metrics.
Autonomous vehicles are an attractive and worthwhile investment for operational efficiency more broadly. They can provide solutions to challenges around a reduced labour supply, are able to work throughout the day and safely after dark, and are less likely to be involved in collisions.
Crucially, this is not about replacing the human workforce with machines. Many of these machines require human input, and so it is about working with technology to boost productivity and efficiency.
The bigger picture
The potential benefits of these technologies to the farming environment are wide-ranging and significant, for the UK and worldwide.
Beyond the field, more advancements in place-based agri-tech can be used to provide authorities and regulators with important information about what has been going on in the farm. It can offer consumers greater transparency around how their food is grown and where it comes from, too – allowing them to make more informed choices about what they buy and eat.
Yet with more data and the software to enable it, we are left with big questions around where power and control lies. Who owns all that data and software?
This is a problem that was highlighted last year when dominant US agricultural manufacturer John Deere went to court for refusing to share software and data needed to repair its machinery. It is an unavoidable challenge that governments, regulators and manufacturers will need to figure out together – and quickly, if they want to minimise the risk of causing conflict and complications that may end up hindering innovation.
Furthermore, given the significant implications for both the environment and global population, innovation must be developed responsibly, ensuring it promotes social and environmental sustainability, fairness and competitiveness.
Collaboration and open data will be key to developing standardised data frameworks that support the agriculture industry to thrive and lay the groundwork for the next generation of farmers and industry – for decades, centuries or millennia to come.