MAKING SENSE OF AGRICULTURE – HAS DIGITAL TWIN TECHNOLOGY COME OF AGE?

Combining economic data with inputs from agri-environmental sensors will enable producers to model ‘what if?’ scenarios, reducing risk and increasing reward – farmers will discuss at REAP conference 8th November 2022

Seeing the impact of change in an agricultural system takes time. So digital models that replicate the real world but that can be used to answer, ‘what if?' questions would potentially reduce the risks and accelerate the adoption of improved strategies. The evolving technology to support these ‘digital twins' is to be discussed at the Agri-TechE REAP conference ‘Making Sense of Agriculture' on the 8th November 2022.

The increasing interest of non-traditional players, such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google in agri-tech is an indication of the change of pace of innovation. Elizabeth Fastiggi, Head of Worldwide Business Development for Agriculture at Amazon Web Services (AWS), is the keynote speaker at REAP 2022. She sees automation as playing an increasingly important role in agriculture, especially with broader adoption of robotics and computer vision.
Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of the business networking organisation Agri-TechE, comments: "Progressive farmers in our membership, want to use their data for smart decision support and to increase automation on-farm.
"The technology to create digital twins for farms, that show in multiple dimensions the environmental impacts, how the system works, business revenues and nutrient flows - and, crucially, where everything is located - are fast becoming a reality, but there are still technology hurdles and gaps.
"Universal internet connectivity and interoperability are among the big ones, but there is also the matter of human interpretation of the models by those who know and understand the land and livestock. It is vital that the technology is farmer-centric."
Ian Beecher-Jones of JoJo's Vineyard is a speaker at the event and an early adopter of precision agriculture. His background is from a broadacre perspective, so when he started to plant up the vineyard about four years ago, he was keen to introduce automation.
He explains: "A number of tasks, especially mowing and under vine management, are very labour intensive. However, to enable automation there is a need to digitise the vineyard accurately and correctly and make a representation that is shareable, so that whoever we are working with - drone, robot or satellite providers - can access the digital infrastructure of the vineyard.
"Without this infrastructure model, every time a new technology is introduced, or a grower wants to introduce new software to the vineyard, they need to survey it to get successfully onboarded."
This time-consuming process is a major obstacle to on-farm adoption of technology and Ian is looking to launch a ‘digital vineyard' later in the year to provide a testbed for different robotic and sensor technologies.
A good example of this trend is Small Robot Company, which is rolling out its ‘per-plant' farming service commercially, just five years after it first debuted its concept in the REAP Start-up Showcase. The precision farming technology is being adopted by farmers keen to reduce inputs and environmental impacts.
Sam Watson, co-founder of Small Robot Company, comments: "Very soon it will be unusual for a farmer to take any decision on their farm without the support of AI, and for a farmer to apply a blanket application of anything in their field."
REAP speaker Dr Marcelo Valadares Galdos, a Soil Carbon Specialist and climate scientist, now at Rothamsted Research, was involved in the smart farm initiative at the University of Leeds, creating agricultural digital twins and agri-environmental sensor networks for decision support. This has included experimenting with novel sensors and use of robotics for soil monitoring.
He explains: "For the last several decades we have been applying computer representations of crops and soils for scientific research. Now, by combining climate projections with information on land use and agricultural management practices, we can develop ‘what if?' scenarios, which are useful to identify ‘climate-smart' options that contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
"One of the advantages of this approach is to see ‘what could I do to improve the sustainability in my specific farm or region with my microclimate and my soil type?'
"I think the most interesting approach is when you include economics as well - input costs, commodity prices, environmental externalities and so on. The question then becomes ‘What could I do in an economically viable way to become more sustainable?'"
"The idea of digital twins encompasses the workflow of the data, from collection and analysis through to visualisation and its presentation on a dashboard of real-time data with actionable insights."
Others argue that the parallel need to be addressed is closer involvement between human experts and AI.
Casey Woodward is founder of Agrisound, which is developing a precision pollination service for farmers by using technology that listens to insects. He comments that there is a gap between ‘big data' and ‘big insights'. "Interpretation of the data can be delivered through increasingly complex algorithms and models, but creating trust in these models to take financially risky decisions is very difficult. Human intervention will still be required to translate data from sensors and provide recommendations that can be actioned."
The discussion continues at the Agri-TechE REAP conference ‘Making Sense of Agriculture' 8th November 2022 at Hinxton Hall on the Wellcome Genome Campus, CB10 1RQ.
Find out more at reapconference.co.uk.

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