Sort data + Create knowledge + Provide performance = Big Data

Silvia Raso, periodista agroalimentaria

The technology to increase the yields of our horticultural farms nowadays passes through a multitude of mobile applications, software applied to our productions that sort data, create knowledge and whose purpose is to obtain performance in our farms. It is the Big Data phenomenon, and although not many people have heard of it, it has arrived and is here to stay, also, in fruit and vegetables.

But… What is a data? How is it created? What types of data exist?

In the vastness of the network you browse daily among large volumes of data that would not be of much use if they were not stored, classified and analysed. From these big data, knowledge, products and services are created. The intelligence of data or the big data phenomenon as we know it today is revolutionizing science, the economy, politics and even our way of life. It is the mass data revolution which, of course, is being applied to agriculture.

According to professor of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence of the University of Córdoba (UCO) César Hervás, we are facing a change of era, since “monitoring of European agriculture will substantially change the way in which European the subsidies are granted and farms and the yield of the different crops are controlled “.

This digitalization will be carried out through research projects involving large agricultural companies and interdisciplinary research groups, says Hervás who, together with the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (IAS), is involved in a line of research related to crop monitoring.

According to Hervás, Big Data is already in the hands of large agricultural companies. “There are already projects to produce different crops using renewable energy, for example solar energy. The question is to amortise investments in solar panels, which is something that only large companies can do “, he says.

Undoubtedly, economic resources are a key asset for investment of this type of digital applications. That’s why, the Campus of International Excellence in Food and Agriculture (Ceia3) is working to raise funds through European projects of the 2020 horizon, with expert José Emilio Guerrero Ginel at the forefront of a project in which the Regional Government of Andalusia (Junta de Andalucía) is taking part through several Councils, among them Agriculture.

The Andalusian companies, the Administration, the Universities and the entire Andalusian innovation and science system face the challenge of designing and developing a Research and Innovation Strategy for the Smart Specialisation of Andalusia, RIS3 ANDALUCIA (Research and Innovation Strategy for Smart Specialisation RIS3).

The European Commission has challenged all the regions with the ultimate goal of fostering a new economic model, focused on companies, and based on a firm and determined commitment to innovation, science, technology, internationalisation and training.

It is about triggering change, a transformation that will allow companies to drive economic recovery again, providing, for this change, a new impulse system and support to innovation and entrepreneurship.

According to Guerrero, a new digital innovation network, the ‘Andalucía Agrotech-Digital Innovation Hub’ has been set up, an initiative of the Andalusian Government to improve the development of the agri-food sector by accelerating all aspects of modernisation and digital transformation: technical, analytical, productive, logistics and commercial.

It is a new digital innovation network in the agri-food sector that aims to connect companies and bring them closer to the technological sector, as well as offering guidance in their commitment to the implementation of new technologies.

The Digital Innovation Hub Andalusia Agrotech was born as an instrument to support and accelerate the implementation of digital innovation in the agri-food value chain within the framework of the European initiatives that currently exist in this area, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture of Andalusia ,Ricardo Domínguez, recently pointed out, in a recent meeting called ‘Andalucía Digital Week’.

Big Data Projects: citrus and greenhouses

One of the most advanced Big Data projects belonging to this network is the so-called ‘IntelligentCitrus’, coordinated by the researcher Cecilia Riccioli and involving the Engineering Group of agro-livestock production systems of the School of Agricultural Engineering and Montes (Etsiam) of Córdoba, the Korean Chungnam National University, the Korean company Lifentech and the Spanish company CT Ingenieros, whose objective is to try to move towards ‘smart agriculture’ by increasing the quality and quantity of agricultural production through of the use of sensor-based technologies and decision support systems in real time.

According to Riccioli, the objective of the project is the development of compact low-cost multispectral image analysis (MIS) system, through the selection of key bands in the spectral region in the visible and near-infrared range. The MIS system developed will be adapted for quality inspection and the quantitative determination ‘in situ’ of strategic quality indicators by integrating other optical sensors in orange labelling machines, in the packaging and citrus selection line.

In general, the expert points out, research into new technologies in fruit and vegetables aims to optimise the use of large databases (Big Data) from smaller and lower cost sensors for individualised product control “Research projects such as ‘IntelligentCitrus’ will allow us to predict the optimum time for harvesting at a not only farm level, but also at tree level. In addition, in the post-harvest phase, the same technology based on hyperspectral image analysis will allow the analysis of quality parameters (for example, acidity or level of soluble solids) in each fruit, thus increasing the benefits, “he concludes.

Among the main challenges of these types of projects is the study of new statistical algorithms and mathematical and multi megavariants (sic) to optimise sampling of bulk materials, in both batch and continuous processes.

And from the Guadalquivir Valley and its citrus fruit to Almeria and its greenhouses, where a ‘cFertigual’ app, developed at the University of Almeria, allows, at the click of a mouse, to calculate irrigation and fertilisation in greenhouses.

As reported by the Discover Foundation, the mobile application, designed for Android systems by researchers from the ‘Automatic, Electronics and Robotics’ group at the University of Almeria (UAL), the National University of Distance Education (UNED) and the Cajamar Foundation will allow farmers and producers, as well as agronomists and researchers in the sector, to make more responsible use of existing resources. Until now, the calculations of irrigation and nutrient supplies for the soil were made in a table by hand or on a computer. This system is more accurate and can also help to reduce the potential for groundwater contamination caused by the disposal of fertilizers.

“We think of it as a very useful work guide in the field of greenhouse agriculture, where in most cases irrigation is constant and greater control is required. However, it is also feasible in “conventional crops, “explains Jorge Sánchez, one of the creators of cFertigUAL and researcher at UAL.
This platform, still in the testing phase, is divided into two parts. On the one hand, it predicts the amount of water lost through transpiration through virtual sensors. They monitor the greenhouse conditions and, based on this information, establish the irrigation requirements. On the other hand, it establishes the total fertilizers that must be applied for each litre of water.

To use the app, once registered, each user must indicate the basic characteristics of the greenhouses or the crop about which he wants to obtain information: dimensions, location and orientation, irrigation systems or the number of tanks. After completing this phase, the analytical data are entered: irrigation water, pH, soil characteristics and drainage. With all these parameters, the programme performs some calculations in real time and chooses an ideal nutrient solution.

A multidisciplinary team of experts made up of agronomists and computer scientists has worked on this project. “Our objective is to improve work in the field, particularly in greenhouses, and to obtain better results with lower costs and less time. Ours is a unique, interactive application that uses internal and external databases, allowing us to control several farms simultaneously, “he says.

The app provides preventive information that helps to improve and optimise production, as well as solve deficiencies or bad practices.
It offers the possibility of verifying whether suitable fertigation systems are being used in existing plantations, that is, if the water and nutrient supply is adequate, depending on the type of crop, soil characteristics and irrigation conditions. In this regard, accurate data are entered manually and a complete solution is obtained for each case.

“In agriculture, fertigation is one of the most critical methods to establish because too much, or too little, affects production. That’s why it is vital to use new technologies like this tool, as a learning system, which also helps with decision-making “, explains this researcher.

This app also includes the option to verify the suitability of the irrigation and fertilization systems used. “We have established guidance indicators that assess how water and fertilizer supply techniques are being carried used. With a colour code similar to a traffic light, red shows if there is an anomaly, yellow indicates that something needs to be improved and green is used to show that the methods are appropriate, “says Sánchez.

Another utility that the creators of FertigUAL are perfecting is to indicate possible variations in irrigation needs based on weather forecasts. “With Aemet weather forecasts and using estimation models of water lost by the plant through the soil and through evaporation, an approximation of the water required each day is offered according to atmospheric conditions”, explains this expert.
These projects are an example of new ways of seeing and working in the fruit and vegetables sector. Although it seems incredible, digital innovation has only just begun.