Modern crop protection, using tools farmers have at hand

My story starts in my 3rd year as a bio-engineering student at Ghent University, when I had to choose which of the available fields of study to take. I made the decision to devote myself to agriculture and more specifically crop protection, because it felt like a challenging topic that could make agriculture much more sustainable. The need to help our farmers in a practical way lead to my commitment as a PhD researcher to a project involving detection of four major diseases in two important crops for the Belgian agricultural sector: potato and leek. During my work, I tackle a complex problem with high-technological resources, which requires a multidisciplinary scientific approach. However, I quickly started to realize that such approaches take time. Time that farmers simply do not have. While I am conducting my PhD, farmers are confronted on a day-to-day basis with protection their crops, while facing a changing climate, a restriction on available tools and an economic system which is not in their favour. We need solutions that can be implemented now, not in five years’ time.

This lead to the idea that the first thing to do is look at what equipment farmers have available today that can help them without too much investments or research. It struck me that most farmers have access to a tool that can be turned into valuable crop protection instrument without realising it. I am talking about smartphones. The use of smartphones has become commonplace in our daily lives, and has seen some integration into farming, especially in farms transforming towards digital agriculture. Still, the full potential of this technology is not being realised. Smartphones contain an asset that I believe is not getting enough attention: an RGB camera that can be controlled by applications on the device. Access to cheap, easily controlled cameras and the ability to immediately share those images worldwide is something we take for granted, but has a lot of potential in crop protection. People use cameras to record their every doing on social media, so why not their crops?

Taking pictures of the field and sharing these with other farmers, who then give their opinion and advice could improve detection of diseases that are difficult to differentiate from other sources of stress (e.g. spraying damage, nutrient deficiencies). Additionally, cameras mounted on the spray boom of the tractor could be used to look for visual symptoms in the crop, such as damage caused by Colorado beetles, which is difficult to spot from the tractor cabin, but could easily be spotted by a camera at spray boom height. The potential is also enormous in greenhouses, which already show some form of automation and where there is a presence of an overhead railing system. Here, cameras could be fitted to rails to scan for cosmetic damage of expensive fresh market vegetable crops, or of decorative plants and flowers. This could lead to the identification of high pest pressure areas, which can then be amended locally by the farmer, replacing full field, orchard or greenhouse pesticide application. The camera could also be mounted on top of mechanical devices such as weeders, to inspect if the process is being carried out properly. A good example would be damage to the crop due to mechanical weeding, which is difficult to see from inside the tractor cabin. A rear-mounted camera could see this damage in real-time, allowing the farmer to adjust his machine. These cameras could further be a valuable educative tool, allowing a class of students to follow cultivation techniques and study the working of parts of the machinery in real-time, without having to be present on the tractor. This extends to placing these cameras in parts of the machinery that are normally difficult to access, but can now be studied in detail.

These examples show potential applications of these cheap, readily available cameras which are being ignored today. My idea is to investigate how famers can use smartphones to enhance their crop protection in a very practical, day-to-day way. I would discuss with farmers from different sectors, including decorative, orchard, greenhouse and field crops to see where they believe extra visual information might come in handy, and what type of inter-farmer sharing platform they would support. The main purpose would be a) the detection of problems, be it technical problems with the cultivation techniques or disease symptoms, and b) the connection of farmers through a smartphone application, which makes it easier to share information, discuss symptoms and control strategies, give early warnings of disease incidence and encourages farmers to work together. I believe this technology can be put to much more use than we are doing today, with relatively low investment costs and a high adaptation rate, since many farmers already own this technology anyway. After talking to farmers, I need to contact software developers to discuss the practicality of making apps that allow both sharing of information and recording cultivation operations with the purpose of problem detection. We need to develop a mounting system that stabilizes the camera and protects it from weather conditions. This technology already exists for smartphones and for example in GoPro camera systems. Likewise, stabilization technology like gimbal mounts are readily available, and might be used on agricultural equipment with few modifications. The fact that all of the technology needed to achieve this idea already exists makes it a cheap, rapidly applicable project, which has a real chance of success if it wins the prize of €5000 coupled with a one year mentorship. In a relatively short amount of time, we could produce a working prototype application and mounting system that we can distribute to farmers for testing.

I believe this idea could change the way farmers are connected with each other and with students trying to learn the trade. Improved monitoring of farming operations and detection of problem areas can have both short and long term economic benefits, since losses due to for example poorly calibrated machinery can be detected earlier and long-term issues like problem areas in the field can be managed, which will improve farming sustainability for years to come. Social benefits include better education and cooperation, but possibly also a reduction in applied pesticides, which are detrimental to the environment.

Simon Appeltans, Belgium

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