by Spyros Fountas, Katerina Kasimati, Nicoleta Darra,
Vasilis Psiroukis, Michael Koutsiaras,
Agricultural University of Athens, Greece
Agriculture is undergoing a digital transformation with the use of advanced machinery, computerized tools and information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve decision making, productivity and sustainability
The emergence of various cutting-edge technologies, from GPS and remote sensing to Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT), is leading to higher yields, lower costs, and reduced environmental impact.
With the help of precision agriculture management systems, farmers can benefit from this new ocean of data they can collect, and data-driven solutions unlock production potential in a sustainable and resource-efficient way.
Thanks to breakthroughs in advanced sensors, actuators and AI, robotic systems have fallen on fertile ground in agriculture. The increasing demand for precision field operations while reducing agricultural inputs and environmental impact makes robotic platforms an alternative to traditional tractors and implements. Small, electrically powered platforms are used for a variety of tasks such as light ploughing, spraying, fertilization and harvesting.
Applied precision farming in Greece
The various European research projects of recent years are good examples of the application of precision agriculture in Greece. The Smart Farming Technology Group (SFTG) of the AUA is currently coordinating the OPTIMA project to develop an optimized integrated pest management system for the precise detection and control of plant diseases in perennial crops and open-field vegetables. In the past, the group has coordinated two other H2020 projects, the Smart-AKIS thematic network on innovation-driven research in smart agricultural technologies and the H2020 project GATES on the development of a serious game for the adoption of precision agriculture in the EU, and has participated in numerous projects, including IoF2020, APOLLO and the INNOSETA thematic network.
A good example of the application of precision agriculture in Greece was SmartAgriHubs’ Flagship project, where AUA together with a leading farm on organic vegetables in Marathon developed a yield estimation model for organic broccoli at least 30 days before harvest. As part of the BigDataGrapes H2020 project, the group collected aerial and proximal data from three test sites in the Northeastern Peloponnese, Greece, to show associations and correlations between precision farming information and phenological data. Finally, in the research project funded by Corteva Agriscience Hellas, UAV data were collected from 13 fields with 3 processing tomato hybrids throughout the growing season and the correlations between each measurement, and the recorded yield of the fields during harvest were investigated to develop a model for yield estimation for processed tomatoes.
The “Demo – Farm”
DemoFarms is an AUA initiative launched by the Agricultural Engineering Lab in collaboration with the Phytopathology Lab and the Hellenic Crop Protection Association. The project aims to create several demonstration farms that are open to the public and act as open demonstration farms so that consumers and the public interested in new technologies and cutting-edge research carried out by the project partners can visit them in groups. In this way, consumers can learn about the agri-food sector and develop their awareness of the food production process. These demo farms will initially be run on selected trial fields of the AUA itself but will later be extended to commercial farms. An important aspect of the project is also the continuation of research on selected topics, coordinated by the respective laboratories. These experiments include, among others, crop protection using novel technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and robotic systems, monitoring pest populations and infestation levels using digital tools, and implementing plant disease models to prevent disease outbreaks in time.
Farm to Fork and Greek farmers
The Farm to Fork strategy, together with the EU Biodiversity Strategy, are at the forefront of the European Commission’s concerted efforts to ensure food security, address climate and environmental challenges and reverse biodiversity loss. Farmers in Greece, just like in the rest of the EU, play a crucial role in implementing these strategies, which aim to reward those farmers and other actors in the food supply chain who have already made the transition to sustainable practices. Today, farmers have an effective way to manage large amounts of information and technological tools to help them make optimal and sustainable decisions throughout the year. However, despite the benefits that digital technologies bring to agriculture and the agri-food sector, there is still a gap in the adoption of such technologies due to technical, financial and social challenges and risks. These include broadband connectivity, the cost of the technologies, the availability of skilled labor and business models. To envisage high adoption of digital technologies to reach these EC strategies, the country needs to invest in hands-on training for agronomists and farmers who are already in farming businesses and give incentives (monetary or dedicated protocols for digital agriculture).
Recently, several projects have been funded under “Measure 16 – Cooperation” of the Rural Development Programme 2014–2020. These are intended to have a strong innovative character and to close the existing counterproductive gap between researchers and practitioners in the field of agriculture and forestry. In this context, Operational Groups involving stakeholders from different groups, such as farmers, scientists and extension workers, have been set up to promote cooperation between stakeholders who rarely meet and exchange ideas, while ensuring the dissemination of the results obtained. Projects approved for the second phase include applications focusing on the development of an innovative variable-rate fertilizer spreader for row crops (and the development of a weed control system using computer vision methods. Other innovative projects focus on issues related to resource conservation, improving soil and water management, climate change mitigation, adaptation to climate change, preserving biodiversity and ecosystems, reducing emissions, animal welfare and social innovation, improving performance at farm and enterprise level and introducing diversification of farming activities in terms of productivity and sustainability.
The article is published in the January/ February issue of Greek Business File. It is part of the cover story on the autonomous production methods powered by robots. It presents the global trends in the robotics markets, the level of robotic process automation in Greek enterprises, the pioneers of the sector in Greece and the Greek companies that have emerged as Industrial Robot Companies. The January / February issue of Greek Business File is available here.