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There are many ways in which food productivity gains can and are be­ing achieved, but none are proving more ef­fec­tive than the ap­pli­ca­tion of tech­nol­ogy. Agricultural Technology, commonly abbreviated to AgTech or AgriTech, are the terms used to de­scribe the de­ploy­ment of this tech­nol­ogy within the agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

It is widely doc­u­mented that to keep up with the growth in the global pop­u­la­tion, es­ti­mated to be at 9-10 billion by 2050, that food pro­duc­tion must increase by 50 percent in the same period and that is be­fore the potential ef­fects of cli­mate change threatens to re­duce yields by up to 25 percent. Fol­low­ing the trail blazed by other sec­tors, agri­cul­ture is turn­ing to tech­nol­ogy for produc­tiv­ity gains.

AgTech trends

AgTech has been a grow­ing in­dus­try for sev­eral years. Fol­low­ing the ac­qui­si­tion of Cli­mate Cor­po­ra­tion by Mon­santo in 2013 for al­most US$1 billion, the following year saw record levels of investment, sur­pass­ing that of the more widely known Fin­Tech and Clean­Tech sec­tors. That in­vest­ment has con­tin­ued to in­crease year-on-year, as has the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the tech­nol­ogy be­ing ap­plied.

Yet de­spite the di­verse ways in which AgTech in­dus­try is evolv­ing, one con­stant re­mains, and that is data. More specif­i­cally, the basis for many AgTech so­lu­tions is the col­lect­ion, stor­ing, analy­sis and shar­ing of data to au­to­mate processes, in­form de­ci­sion-mak­ing and di­rect re­sources. In this and upcoming posts we will examine current and future trends in each area, and we start­ with data col­lec­tion.

Sen­sors

Within the last few years, there has been a rapid increase in the range of sen­sors launched for the AgTech mar­ket. These include ground-based devices that mea­sure and re­port data points such as live soil mois­ture lev­els, through to ma­chine-based sen­sors mon­i­tor­ing crop height and ad­just­ing fertilizer lev­els ac­cord­ingly in real-time. As AgTech in­vest­ment in­creases, we should ex­pect to see con­tin­ued growth in the sen­sor mar­ketplace in­clud­ing con­ver­gence de­vices that can sense mul­ti­ple data types in a sin­gle unit, thereby re­duc­ing cap­i­tal costs and main­te­nance over­heads.

Im­agery

For many decades, satel­lite and air­borne re­mote sens­ing has played a cru­cial role in in­form­ing the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity. The res­o­lu­tion of satel­lite im­agery has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly over that time en­abling de­ci­sion-mak­ing at more gran­u­lar lev­els. Drone use within agriculture has slowly built mo­men­tum for sev­eral years now as they rep­re­sent a next-generation step in both the flex­i­bil­ity of im­agery col­lec­tion as well as im­age res­o­lu­tion. Yet drone use for agri­cul­tural pur­poses is not without its hur­dles; af­ford­abil­ity, air­space reg­u­la­tions and us­abil­ity are amongst the ob­sta­cles holding back its po­ten­tial.

Crowdsourc­ing

Crowdsourc­ing too has its place in the AgTech data col­lec­tion process. Sometimes con­sid­ered to be in­fe­rior when com­pared to integrity of re­motely sensed data, in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where sen­sor tech­nol­ogy is out of the fi­nan­cial reach of many farm­ers, crowdsourcing has po­ten­tial to pro­vide a cost-effective way of gathering crucial data at scale us­ing sim­ple mo­bile phone tech­nol­ogy. However, it too has its hur­dles to over­come – first, there needs to be an in­cen­tive for farm­ers to collect and send data, find­ing an in­cen­tive large enough that farm­ers are mo­ti­vated to col­lec­tively pro­vide their in­for­ma­tion is dif­fi­cult. Sec­ond, the in­tegrity of crowdsourced data can be ques­tionable despite the use of an­a­lyt­i­cal and data cleans­ing tech­niques to re­move out­liers and con­flict­ing data points.

Third, crowdsourc­ing is only use­ful when used at scale and that means not just pro­vid­ing an in­cen­tive accessible enough that it reaches a whole coun­try’s farm­ing com­mu­nity but also pre­sents high op­er­a­tional and mar­ket­ing costs in com­mu­ni­cat­ing the ex­is­tence and ben­e­fits of the crowdsourc­ing ini­tia­tive. Yet de­spite these chal­lenges, crowdsourc­ing re­mains an al­ter­na­tive op­tion for highly scal­able ground-truth data col­lec­tion.

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