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Precision farming creates a buzz as growers try new technology

Demand is picking up again after a decline: precision farming in SA fell prey to the hype that often follows the emergence of a new technology, Meltzer says.

American consultancy Garner describes technology development as having five stages: the “technology trigger”, characterised by a sharp spike in visibility; the technology reaching a “peak of inflated exceptions”, the greatest visibility it will obtain, before plummeting into the “trough of disillusionment”; and following an arduous climb up the “slope of enlightenment”, a technology reaches a “plateau of productivity”.

There has been a boom in sensor-based and remote-sensing technology — agriculture is just one of the applications — and a sharp rise in the number of companies offering sensor-based solutions.

However, having the technology and the data it generates do not necessarily mean that it will suit a farmer’s needs. This resulted in farmers being overwhelmed with the technology’s applications and creating disillusionment, Meltzer says.

“The feeling became quite negative because people had been oversold … but that is changing,” he says.

“There was a lack of education about what this technology is and isn’t capable of. When drone technology initially came on the scene, everyone knew it had potential, but no one knew exactly what.”

A major aspect of new technology is the algorithms that make the data useful.

One way to do this is with artificial intelligence that allows a computer to perform tasks that were usually only within the ambit of human skill, such as sensing, optimised decision-making and learning.

A current Aerobotics project uses artificial intelligence processes to identify and map trees in an orchard.

“There’s an object recognition or classification [algorithm] that will identify each tree and give you a count across a range of metrics, such as tree height, canopy depth, health of the trees,” Meltzer says.

Each tree has unique GPS co-ordinates, and “each time you fly a drone over the orchard, you can pick up outliers and anomalies”, he says.

The team at Aerobotics — 13 people, 11 of whom are engineers — is also undertaking research to predict individual tree fruit yields.

“There’s been an explosion on the tech side,” Meltzer says.

“The applications have started becoming apparent, and industry is waking up to it.”

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