The National Science Agenda states that ‘small robots will make it possible for multiple crops to grow together and to be harvested separately. With better measuring and smart data-analysis, we can do things in a more customized way and thus be more efficient with our inputs and strongly boost the yield and quality of production/products.’ An apt message, certainly for Gerard Beenker, whose own vision of agri-production sees a role for robots in shaping farming of the future.
Gerard is a TU/e alumnus who had a successful career in the semiconductor domain at Philips and NXP, where he was responsible as Scientific Director for external relations with universities, authorities and other companies. His return to his alma mater in 2014 saw a bit of a reversal of this role. At HTSC he was involved in seeking opportunities for partnering industry and, in this case, in the (often literal) field of high-tech agriculture. He used his past experience and knowledge to enable fruitful collaboration between HTSC and industrial partners to investigate, for example, where high tech systems can optimize production processes or make food production more sustainable. In that sense, Gerard fulfilled a bridging role between research and application.*
High-tech is everywhere
These days technology is everywhere, and it’s no less true in agriculture. For example, robotics, computer science, materials research. What is fascinating here is that we are bringing these disciplines together in a way that is enabling innovation and progress in farming, horticulture, food production and so on. We are confronted with a rapidly growing population on our planet and it is a huge challenge to provide a safe and secure healthy food supply for everyone. Plus we are also having to deal with things like weather extremes as a result of climate change and the onset of a whole range of diseases that affect crops.
We are using technology to try to both alleviate these issues and to ensure that we can continue to provide food in a sustainable way. In the Netherlands, agrifood is one of our strengths, and we are coupling this with our high-tech knowledge and expertise to generate innovative solutions for these problems. For example, with Wageningen University, a world leader in food and agri research, and HTSC, where the expertise stretches from microelectronics to high-tech materials, we have the possibility to collaborate to produce high-tech innovation to tackle the major food issues.
The digitalized farm
Let me give you a real example, close to home, of where one particular farmer, Van Den Borne Aardappelen (potatoes) in Reusel, is using high-tech applications to introduce the right cultivation measures through precision farming. For example, drones are used to inspect the land and take measurements. Where is water needed and where not, where is disease apparent and where not. All the data that is generated is then analyzed to reveal what the crop actually requires and, as a result, crop protection agents, artificial fertilizer, labor and soil can be used better and more efficiently, and output boosted. This is digitalization at work quite literally in the field!
And this digitalization trend runs throughout the whole food production process, where end-users want to know the origin of the food they consume. Measurements and data are taken from beginning to end. Whether that’s for the purpose of showing the consumer that the food is safe or enabling food-processing activities to be improved and optimized. And so we come to another increasingly popular term generated by all this digitalization, and that is ‘smart’, in this case ‘smart’ agriculture. In other words, using technology to enable operations and processes to become smarter and ultimately better for everyone involved throughout the chain.
Back to the future
One of the main reasons for making use of the ‘smart’ option in arable farming, for instance, is in response to mass monoculture production. While this kind of mono-cultivation has several benefits, like growing on vast tracts of land and easy harvesting, there are major disadvantages such as vulnerability to diseases since if a single species of crop is affected, then the whole production is endangered. Moreover, the huge machines that process the fields are actually detrimental to the soil in the long run. So one of the suggested alternatives is to work with smaller machines, which is not only better for the soil but also allows a variety of crops to share the same field. Studies by Wageningen University have revealed that this method both increases the yield and reduces crop vulnerability to diseases with less need for pesticides and the like, and is better for the soil. So the way forward is, in some ways, retrospective: farming practices of the past employed many laborers using smaller machines to do the work, something that is not really feasible any longer in the high-income countries of today. The place of the laborers will be taken by collaborative robots who will ensure that the various crops are harvested well.
Combining disciplines, knowledge and expertise
At TU/e there are great research opportunities that will challenge the established order. For instance, a study has been started here with a focus on materials that can filter sunlight in such a way that plants can grow better without the need for led lighting. Using special panels the sunlight can also be converted into electricity, so you have a double gain. Of course, you need to know which wavelength of light the plants require – that’s something we are investigating together with Wageningen right now.
Certainly we are combining disciplines, knowledge and expertise to advance innovative solutions for real problems. And we are also developing new business models for the changing landscape of an agrifood sector that is increasingly using technology to get food to the table. There are many examples of studies and research in the agrifood area where HTSC brings together both academic and industrial partners from various disciplines and domains to converge their knowledge and expertise to produce breakthroughs and results that will help us tackle the very hot topic of a safe, sustainable and healthy food supply for all.
And you should not think that these high-tech solutions are confined to highly developed high-tech countries of the West. In fact, they are particularly well suited to less developed nations, in Africa for instance. All the phases that Europe has undergone to get where it is now in the development of high-tech solutions – mobile networks, security protocols, electronics, etc – can perhaps be skipped and robots, drones and other mobile, digital high-tech machines and equipment deployed ‘off the shelf’ for a cheaper, small-scale mechanization alternative to huge agricultural equipment and machinery.
I think that in thirty years or so, agrifood technology will have had a significant impact on how we approach our food supply. It will have led to better conditions for the animals we rear for food, for the resilience of the crops we grow, awareness among consumers about the lifecycle and chain of production from farm to table. In terms of nutrition, I think that food will continue to become more personalized – just like health – and I believe we will have taken significant steps, in no small measure due to the application of high-tech interventions, towards securing safe, sustainable and healthy food for the world’s population. You can call me optimistic but that is indeed what I am, an optimist.
*Gerard Beenker retired on 1st April 2018