Digitalisation in fruit growing yet to fully take off
Ljubljana, 28 December - There is practically no industry that has not been digitalised in one way or another, and ten years since digitalisation started in agriculture, fruit growing is no exception. While technological innovation may seem to be blurring the line between science fiction and reality, the gap between what is technologically feasible and widely used is still wide.
Although the public and experts may seem to be more thoroughly interested in the development and use of digital technologies to optimise processes in agriculture in recent years, this process has been going on for decades, not only because of the constant need to find more efficient and cost-effective processes to produce food but also because of the interest in finding sustainable and environment-friendly solutions, which digital technology enables.
Wide gap between technologically feasible and mass application
Technological tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analysis in the cloud make the potential pool of accessible data about any agricultural activity larger than ever before. Precise agricultural technologies such as soil sensors, control or tracking systems, satellite images and geolocation, facilitate a major leap in efficiency and productivity in agriculture. But the gap between what is technologically feasible and what is financially or logistically available to a mass of users is currently still wide.
Fruit growing requires a number of processes such as soil quality control, pest protection, pruning, watering and picking. Digital technologies available to Slovenian fruit growers can be put in three main groups: specialised smart tractors, systems for remote monitoring of orchards, and autonomous vehicles.
Tractors equipped with ever more modern technologies
According to Tomaž Poje, a researcher at the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia's Department for Agricultural Engineering and Energy, digital development in agricultural machinery, such as tractors or their attachments, is rapid.
Tractors have ever more assistance systems, such as GPS guiding them along straight lines in vineyards or orchards, which makes work easier for tractor drivers enabling them to be more precise. "We have virtually all tractor processes digitalised. Today a modern tractor has practically three touch screens."
Various attachments are connected to the tractor's computer and screens through the ISOBUS standardised communication protocol used by agricultural machines. This makes sensitive tasks such as tilling more precise. Digital communications systems meanwhile enable remote control over the tractor - one can use an app on the phone to monitor data such as the tractor's location, use, engine revolutions, temperature and efficiency.
Yet this is where the gap between the feasible and accessible comes to the forefront. A tractor with assistance systems suitable for orchards costs from 70,000 to 150,000 euro, a prohibitively high price for many fruit growers or farms which raises the question of whether such an investment will pay off. It seems that without subsidies or organised sharing, these machines will not be used at a large scale soon.
New data helps manage agricultural land
From the aspect of price, remote monitoring is more accessible. A good example is the Maribor-based company Termodron, which is developing a system of unmanned aerial vehicles. The drone has a multispectral camera and a GPS system to make photos that can be used to produce application maps for manuring, plant protection or sowing.
The photos enable early detection of disease or pests in the field, orchards or vineyards. Such data can serve as a basis for selective and targetted protection of plants, while a tractor and a sprinkler which support the use of such application maps are needed for optimal use.
Sergej Kranjc from the company says that with the help of their drone, "an orchard owner knows the exact location of red areas, can go and inspect them and prepare right measures or use the right amount of protective products".
Autonomous vehicles come with certain restrictions
An autonomous robotised vehicle named Slopehelper is being developed in Slovenia by the Vrhnika-based company PeK Automotive. It is intended for vineyards and orchards and is designed to replace tractors. The company is also developing a robotised attachment for picking fruit as it seeks to produce a fully autonomous agricultural vehicle.
But for a fully autonomous vehicle to be effective, certain conditions must be met - for instance, an orchard must have the right dimensions with enough space between trees, while many fruit growers could or would not change their land to suit the machine.
Use of available technologies can make work easier and help protect the environment
Blaž Germšek, head of the Centre for Research and Trials at the Jablje Infrastructure Centre, says that currently the most useful technology is the one which enables farmers to access data that has not been available so far. "But then it is up to us to read it and get something out of it. A mass of new data can help optimise processes in fruit growing, to reduce the price of product or minimise the impact on nature."
However, introducing new, especially complex technology, into well-established processes is a major challenge for many. Poje says that "people often buy equipment but do not use all of its potential because this is hard at least at the beginning. But once its use becomes business as usual, such equipment really makes work much simpler."