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Israeli Farmers to feed billions with Drones in Air and Sensors in Ground

World’s future food security is in danger due to many new challenges. In every forum -exhibitions or conferences and seminars, global leaders discuss as to how to cope up with this issue. In order to deal with global food security, Israel has come out with new innovations. According to the Haaretz, The race never ends. The number of people in the world is growing rapidly, thus agriculture is constantly trying to improve to feed all those mouths. In the 20th and early 21st centuries, the attempts have been successful, if barely. Thanks to sophisticated fertilization, advanced irrigation and pest control, humankind has managed to avert an agricultural crisis. 

Now we seem to be confronting a new challenge. According to a UN report published last month, by 2050 global warming is expected to rack agricultural yields in densely populated regions such as West Africa and India, where yields are expected to decline 2.9 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, according to a 2016 UN report, agricultural production will have to increase by about 70 percent by 2050 to feed another 2.3 billion people. 

This challenge hasn’t been lost on Israeli entrepreneurs; in Israel, there are about 530 technology companies focusing on agriculture. Israel’s agricultural sector has its origins in the kibbutz movement, but 58 percent of all active agri-tech companies were established only about a decade ago, and 40 percent in the past five years. 

The Israeli companies aren’t lagging; around the world last year, 7 percent of all transactions in high-tech agriculture were partnerships with Israeli startups. An agri-tech veteran is Evogene, which was founded in 2001. But the company, which specializes in the genetic engineering of plants, only recently joined the trend of precision agriculture. 

“The challenges haven’t changed, but the tools for dealing with them have,” says Evogene CEO Ofer Haviv. “Think about the field as a factory: You want maximum control over production, but in agriculture it’s dunams of crops. These aren’t only working machines, they’re plants, living creatures that are constantly changing and reacting to their environment. Knowing what’s happening at any given moment is a difficult task.” 

Haviv says the trend is changing thanks to technology that was developed in recent years. “Today sensors in the field can send messages about the amount of water, light and fertilizers, and every day drones circle and photograph the field in high resolution,” he says. “All that is channeled to a central computer that analyzes the data.” 

As Haviv puts it, “It’s a kind of field hospital. It’s a hospital that flies from one plant to the next, gathers information about the patients and sends it to a monitoring center for analysis. For example, the system is capable of recognizing that a specific disease is developing, and will then spray pesticides in a specific spot, not over the entire field. We can see that in a certain area there’s a shortage of fertilizer and increase the amount.” Thus fewer resources are needed to guarantee an improved yield. “That means fewer chemicals, fewer polluting fertilizers and more sustainable yields,” Haviv says. 

Creeping revolution - Through the Phenomics Consortium, sponsored by the Israel Innovation Authority, Evogene cooperates with other players in the industry and the academic world to improve its technology, including the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Technion technology institute, the University of Haifa, and the companies Rahan Meristem and Elbit Systems.  This may seem a strange industry for a defense contractor like Elbit Systems, but Shuki Yehuda, the company’s chief technology officer, says Elbit’s capabilities are made to order for precision agriculture. 

The company combines sensors, data analysis, and drones to contribute to the consortium. “We altered a drone for civilian flight and installed electro-optical indexes,” Yehuda says. “We collect the data it gathers and draws a map that updates the farmers about their crops,” Yehuda says Elbit Systems is the only company in the world that surveys agricultural plots with hyperspectral sensors, which absorb information from the entire electromagnetic spectrum. He says that in this way one can know, for example, how many chemicals a plant contains. 

“We use methods that weren’t feasible until recently, and this data is being gathered for the first time in a consortium,” Yehuda says. “Today we can test the leaf and estimate precisely the amount of water and photosynthesis.” 

The startup’s system analyzes data from irrigation systems, sensors in the ground, satellite photos and the weather. It thereby helps farmers maintain existing yields, predict problems, make decisions in real time and increase production. The company so far has raised about $24 million and employs about 50 people.

Another company that offers a birds-eye solution is Taranis, which since its establishment in 2013 has raised about $10 million. Ofir Schlam, the CEO and co-founder, says that usually when Taranis demonstrates its services to farmers in their fields, “they’re amazed at a picture of a beetle chewing on a leaf and ask, ‘Wait a second, was that taken from a plane?’ They then call all their workers to come over and take a look.” 

Taranis has developed three patents that make it possible to fly 200 kilometers per hour above agricultural areas and take pictures at a resolution of half a millimeter per pixel. “It would take an agronomist an entire day to walk through the field and document it, while we’re capable of doing it in a few minutes,” Schlam says. His company provides farmers with equipment installed on aircraft used for fertilization and pest control. As Schlam puts it, “Farmers are currently losing about 40% of their crop due to diseases, parasites and weeds.” 

To deal with pests effectively, Taranis developed a system that enables drones and planes to fly low at high speed “and at the moment of filming, when the shutter is open, to keep track of the focal point while calculating the acceleration, angles and amount of light,” Schlam says. After the field is filmed, the information is sent to Taranis’ servers, which give the farmer a detailed report within 24 hours. Schlam says that with artificial-intelligence software and an in-depth study that was developed with the help of 50 agronomists, every insect and parasite can be identified. 



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