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Inspiring Trend 26 June Jun 2017 1550 26 June 2017

From drones to the cloud, even agricultural work is increasingly 4.0

Providing the planet with what it needs, when it needs it: that’s why even the world’s oldest sector is embracing technology. And changing the way of working

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Cities don’t have a monopoly on being “smart”: farming of the future manoeuvres its way between drones and sensors, big data and remotely-planned irrigation. “There can be no Smart City if we don’t take care of Smart Land,” explains sociologist and director of Aaster, Aldo Bonomi, adapting the old Braudelian adage: “There can be no rich city without flourishing countryside.” It is not by chance that the farming sector has produced an astounding income of 33 billion euros to date: and this trend is set to grow, including thanks to young people, in a complete rediscovery of a sector that can offer good earnings, but above all the chance to innovate and experiment thanks to new technologies, thus increasing also the competitiveness and attractiveness of the local area.

Drones and big data in particular appear to be the two key factors of farming 4.0. Precision farming means giving the crop exactly what it needs right when it needs it, and this requires a large quantity of data and excellent processing capacity. The use of drones in farming is not something entirely new. What is interesting is its growing range of possible applications, which go beyond simply monitoring crops and livestock herds. For example, a new cultivation system developed by the MIT, based on the use of smart drones, sows seeds by spreading specific seeds and nutrient-rich pods onto the ground below, very much like something out of science fiction.

“Our technologies are especially useful in Italy, where farms typically have plots of land scattered over the local area and it is difficult to perform a single survey. With drones connected in real time, there is no need to send consultants and agriculturists out to each plot of land, because the agriculturist receives the data while sitting at their desk in front of their computer”

Giuseppe Spallina, Heli-Lab

But the potential of agricultural technology doesn’t end there: by fitting sensors on livestock, the behaviour of each animal can be continuously monitored, for example, obtaining information on any changes in habits which could point to suffering. Stalls can also be fitted with sensors: hi-tech stalls that can measure the milk produced from milking, in real-time.

Umbria-based start-up Agricolus is a leading company in this field in Italy. The aim of this cloud platform, which is made up of a number of applications, is to optimise farm management through three key functions: optimisation of the data storage and analysis system; support in decision-making with regard to the specific treatments to perform on crops; provision of warning systems for plant pathologies or other adversities that could affect the crops.

Another company operating in this field is Catania-based Heli-Lab, which specialises in the research and development of drones. And not any old drones, but fully-fledged flying personal computers connected to the Internet, able to collect data and transmit it in real time. This technology can be used in a number of sectors, from precision farming to fire prevention. And now, Giuseppe Spallina, Chiara Carlevaro and Antonio Raspanti, the three brains behind the Heli-Lab brand, are perfecting it, with a view to breaking into the market.

“We bought a drone and filmed some images, which we then uploaded to the Internet,” Giuseppe Spallina tells us. “A producer saw them and got in touch.” That’s how they started out, working for the series The Young Montalbano, before working on adverts for famous brands and even supplying images to the BBC. As such, the film industry acted as “fuel” for the start-up, so that it had the income to reinvest in technological research and drone innovation. “We identified a problem,” Giuseppe tells us. “The drones used today are put into flight, they collect the data and then we have to wait for them to come back down to the ground before we can process that data. We thought about connecting the drones to the Internet instead, to allow them to communicate with the world in real time.” In this way, “the drone transforms into a flying PC, which is able to collect heterogeneous data, from the pressure to ground temperature, for example, and transfer it to a server which, in turn, processes it.”

The guys at Heli-Lab invested a moderate amount of money and succeeded in developing this highly expensive technology, which up until now has been used on military drones, and making it suitable for use in the most varied of sectors. Starting with precision farming, which analyses the land so that farmers can take targeted action by taking soil type into account. The drone flies over the fields and can accurately point out in real time where more water, fertilizer or herbicides are needed. And this leads to significant savings. “Our technologies are especially useful in Italy, where farms typically have plots of land scattered over the local area and it is difficult to perform a single survey,” explains Spallina. “With drones connected in real time, there is no need to send consultants and agriculturists out to each plot of land, because the agriculturist receives the data while sitting at their desk in front of their computer.” This saves not only effort, but also time, which, in many cases, is critical in farming. “Taking immediate action is crucial, especially when we need to treat epidemics such as Xylella or the red palm weevil.” And these drones – on which Heli-Lab is working – might also be able to “communicate directly with agricultural machinery on the ground.” And that’s how farming is becoming smart.