How technology is changing the future of agriculture

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How technology is changing the future of agriculture

As sensor-laden machines move from one end of a field to the other, they scan for imperfections. If a plant needs water, it will get fed. If another is wilting with disease, it will be treated and monitored. It is the agriculture of the future, where Silicon Valley meets tradition. But the farmers won’t be absent from this field of the future: they will be relieved of time-consuming tasks to better monitor their crops and take appropriate and anticipated actions.

The Swiss company ecoRobotix is working to disrupt the agricultural technology space through its robotic machinery

The idea is not that distant from any everyday reality. The Swiss company ecoRobotix is working to disrupt the agricultural technology space through its robotic machinery. It aims to create automated farming machines on which farmers will be able to both reduce the cost of making food and use fewer damaging inputs such as pesticides.

"Our long-term vision is to have autonomous machines that will take care of each plant in a field individually according to its needs," said co-founder and board member Aurélien Demaurex.

"Technologies that will play a major role in tomorrow's agriculture are robotics and artificial intelligence. These technologies are already present on farms - such as milking robots for cows - and will be generalised to most agricultural operations."

“Technologies that will play a major role in tomorrow's agriculture are robotics and artificial intelligence”, shared Demaurex

Technology has taken a firm foothold in agricultural development in recent years. In October, Google's parent company Alphabet unveiled prototype machines which can move around fields while collecting data about plants1, such as how they grow and respond to the environment around them. IBM is using a combination of artificial intelligence, the internet of things and predictive analysis to anticipate how weather patterns will affect crop yields. This new focus comes as investors are increasingly recognising the importance of preserving our natural capital - the soil, air and water that we rely on to survive.

Many other companies are following similar paths but most have the same aim - using applications to make production more efficient for the farmer and produce crops with a minimal effect on the environment, ensuring that the lands that produce our food will continue to be fertile for many years into the future. Never before has this been more important given one third of our lands are already degraded due to overly intensive agriculture.

This new focus comes as investors are increasingly recognising the importance of preserving our natural capital - the soil, air and water that we rely on to survive

New solutions

For ecoRobotix, the aim is to produce agricultural machinery which reduces two things - the effect on the environment of modern agriculture and also its cost.

"Our goal is to provide accurate, safe, reliable and affordable robotic solutions that make it easier for farmers to produce healthy food. For example, the use of our autonomous weeding robots can reduce costs by more than 40% while using 95% less product," said Demaurex, referring to products such as fertilisers and pesticides.

“Our goal is to provide accurate, safe, reliable and affordable robotic solutions that make it easier for farmers to produce healthy food”, said Demaurex

This does not have to be an expensive endeavour for farmers, he says, as the solutions make economic sense. "We were able to prove this year that our first prototype can reduce the amount of spraying on crops by 50%, while at the same time guaranteeing a 10-30% reduction in cost to the farmer. The aim is to achieve a 95% reduction… and cost reductions of more than 40% for next year."

Within a decade, the farming industry could be transformed, according to Demaurex. New technologies will be used in water management, in how livestock are handled, in food packaging, waste and packaging to name a few.

Pat Brown, CEO of the plant-based substitute company Impossible Foods, recently said2 that “Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035. We’re dead serious about it, and we believe it’s doable... It’s game over for the incumbent industry –they just don’t know it yet.”

Within a decade, the farming industry could be transformed, according to Demaurex

It is a view shared across many sectors and is seen as being vital to feed the world's growing population, which will require 70% more food by 2050.
 

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A fertile ground

Founded in 2014, ecoRobotix is amongst a number of other companies in the agricultural tech sector that have started out in Switzerland - a country which has traditionally been closely associated with agriculture and food.

"In recent years, more and more innovations and players have emerged further up the value chain," said Demaurex. "We therefore have a unique ecosystem due to a deeply rooted agricultural tradition, an unrivalled density of world-leading companies and scientific institutions and a large number of start-ups in areas such as food, nutrition, life sciences or robotics.” Switzerland’s leadership in the area has been illustrated by the recent creation of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley, a network of key players working to promote food and nutrition information.

Switzerland’s leadership (…) has been illustrated by the recent creation of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley

Amongst the other companies making significant impacts in the area are Gamaya, which uses drones to develop crop solutions. Demaurex also mentions senseFly, which also uses drones, this time for the collection of geospatial data to help decision-making in agriculture, engineering and humanitarian aid. Cleangreens meanwhile makes mechanical systems for the efficient production of crops.

Together, they form one part of a global push towards the CLIC™ economy - the idea that life becomes circular, lean, inclusive and clean. By seeking to make farms more efficient, reducing the amount of pesticides and fertilisers used, they will become much more environmentally friendly and more likely to preserve natural capital into the future.


Certified positive

Last year, ecoRobotix became certified as a B Corp, recognising the highest level of social and environmental performance. For Demaurex, the accreditation acknowledged the moves that the company has put in place to make a positive mark on the planet.

"The goal of ecoRobotix is to have an especially positive impact on the environment. Being B Corp certified has enabled us to formalise many values that we already put into practice in our daily lives and at company level. It is both a form of reward and motivation to go even further in this direction," he said.

“Being B-Corp certified has enabled us to formalise many values that we already put into practice in our daily lives and at company level. It is both a form of reward and motivation to go even further in this direction”, commented Demaurex

These positive environmental moves extend beyond the products that the company sells to include how they operate every day. "We offset the CO2 emissions of all our travel. We subsidise our employees for the use of public transport. We raise our team's awareness of climate issues through workshops with specialised companies. We devote working days to supporting environmental projects such as helping a local farmer to maintain a dry meadow and building stone shelters for small animals. In the interests of ecological sustainability, we seek to be consistent in our choice of transport, suppliers and various partners. Each employee has one day per year to serve a cause of his or her choice."


A positive 2021

This year looks bright for ecoRobotix. The company will bring its first product to market early in the year and aims to disseminate its technology as widely as possible by expanding into other European countries. As the demand for agricultural technology increases, ecoRobotix's plans for scale-up and international development is well-timed.

1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-54538849
2 https://www.intelligentliving.co/impossible-foods-plans-replace-animals-in-food-2035/

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