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How Swiss technology is changing farming


Based on information relayed by a Swiss start-up, the owner of a sugar mill in India tells local cane farmers it’s almost time to harvest their crop. This is the brave new world of smart farming: integrating advanced technologies such as remote sensing, big data, artificial intelligence and robotics into everyday farm management.  

The information provided to the sugar mill owner came from Gamaya, a spin-off of Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL), which applies its own crop and region-specific algorithms to satellite imagery. Gamaya teamed up with India’s largest tractor manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra last year in a deal worth CHF4.3 million ($4.4 million).

Drones and satellites have become a popular tool for farmers to survey their lands and generate crop data with the help of agritech companies. Gamaya uses different kinds of image-gathering technology depending on the site, such as special drone-mounted cameras to assess crop status.

 “Mounted on a drone, our hyperspectral camera captures very rich images,” says Thomas Peyrachon of Gamaya. The camera can capture 40 different bands of light, he explains, compared to three in standard cameras. That allows it to detect subtle variations in light reflected on the plant and read its condition.


Less is more

Between 20 and 40% of the world’s grain harvest is currently lost to pests and disease, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, the average farm can generate half a million data points per day, everything from soil temperature to individual milk yields to the presence of pests in a crop. 

When this information is converted into sound advice, farmers can operate in a much more precise way, using fewer resources. Even in one field of maize, for example, there may be different patches that need replanting, or the application of fertiliser, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides at a given time. 

This change towards micro-managing farms with sophisticated information while reducing their ecological footprint has been referred to as the Fourth Agricultural Revolution. The so-called agritech sector is experiencing a boom worldwide and promoting innovation and digitalisation in agriculture is one of the stated aims of Switzerland’s new agriculture strategy for 2022–2025. 


“There is plenty of research activity in all directions. We hope to build Switzerland up to become a strong hub, especially for data capturing and data analytics, where we have a lot of expertise,” says Roland Siegwart, professor for autonomous mobile robots at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ). He previously worked with Gamaya on a project in Ukraine involving the European Space Agency.

Gamaya is currently focusing on the Brazilian sugarcane and soybean markets, since large-scale farming countries like Brazil and the United States are looking to agritech companies for help with drone and satellite imagery. In sugarcane, where some farms are up to 100,000 hectares in size, the Swiss start-up has developed a solution to detect planting gaps with its drone detectors. 

Gaps on the ground are one of the major causes of yield loss due to the perennial nature of the crop. When the gaps are identified, the grower can replant in the most problematic areas.

Apart from gathering data or spraying crops from the air, there are also developments taking place at ground level, with autonomous robotic vehicles being developed for various tasks such as weeding, the application of fertiliser or fruit harvesting. 

At the ETHZ’s research station for plant sciences in Eschikon, outside of Zurich, scientists are testing machines that can intervene in the field. Ten engineering students on a teaching project have been tasked to construct a robot that will go through beet fields and find and destroy weeds. The prototypes are due to be ready in May or June. 

Listening to plants

Another Swiss start-up, Vivent in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, is taking a novel approach to analysing plants by monitoring and interpreting biosignals.

The company has developed a sensor which is attached to a plant, for example a greenhouse-grown tomato. Plants emit different signals depending on the stress or stimulus, as co-founder Carrol Plummer explains. 

“We can interpret plant signals to detect different crop conditions. For instance, we can tell whether the plant is being attacked by a chewing or sucking insect or whether it has a fungal infection or a nutrient deficiency. The grower can then respond to this information.”

The signals are processed in a similar way to how automatic voice recognition software works. “We record the signals when the plant is healthy, stressed or stimulated and use artificial intelligence to interpret the signals. It’s akin to learning a language.”

Vivent has received funding to continue working on two new projects with Agroscope, the Swiss federal body for agriculture research. With the wealth of information and new systems now available to farmers, including a plethora of farm management apps, the challenge at this point is to match farms with the right technology package. It may well be that the next growth area in smart farming is consultancy. 



스위스 기술이 어떻게 농업을 변화시키고 있는가?

소위 아그리텍 분야는 세계적으로 호황을 누리고 있으며 스위스의 2022-2025년 새로운 농업 전략의 명시적 목표 중 하나는 농업의 혁신과 디지털화를 촉진하는 것이다.

위성 이미지에 자체 작물 및 지역별 알고리즘을 적용하는 로잔 연방기술연구소(EPFL)의 스핀오프인 가마야는 지난해 인도 최대의 트랙터 제조업체인 마힌드라 & 마힌드라사와 함께 CHF430만 (약 440만 달러) 규모의 계약을 체결했다.

가마야는 작물 상태를 평가하기 위해 드론 장착 카메라 등 이미지 수집 기술을 사용한다. 카메라는 일반 카메라에서 세 대에 비해 40여 종의 빛을 포착할 수 있다. 이를 통해 발전소에 반사된 빛의 미묘한 변화를 감지하고 상태를 판독할 수 있다.

가마야는 현재 브라질 사탕수수와 콩 시장에 주력하고 있는데, 브라질이나 미국과 같은 대규모 농업 국가들이 드론이나 위성 사진 촬영에 대한 도움을 얻기 위해 기업들을 찾고 있기 때문이다. 일부 농장의 면적이 최대 10만 헥타르에 이르는 사탕수수에서 스위스 스타트업이 드론 탐지기로 심는 틈새를 감지하는 솔루션을 개발했다.

또 다른 스위스 스타트업 Vivent는 Vaud의 프랑스어를 사용하는 캔톤에서 바이오시그널을 모니터링하고 해석하여 식물을 분석하는 새로운 접근법을 취하고 있다. 이 회사는 식물에 부착된 센서를 개발했다. 예를 들어, 온실에서 자란 토마토, 식물은 공동 창업자인 카롤 플럼머의 설명처럼 스트레스나 자극에 따라 다른 신호를 내보낸다.



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  • 기사등록 2020-05-11 10:57:23
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