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Drones, robots and satellites: the future of Welsh agriculture?

22 November 2016

Article by Katy Orford, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

Photograph of drone and cow
Image from Flikr by Lima Pix. Licenced under the Creative Commons

On 23 November, Members will be debating the benefits of the application of ‘big data’ in agriculture. This blog explores what big data is and its uses in agriculture, in particular, in the context of ‘precision agriculture’, a new scientific and data rich approach to farming.

The term ‘big data’ refers to ‘large, often unstructured data sets that are available, potentially in real time’ (Office for National Statistics). The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is currently funding a Big Data Network that is looking at the way big data could be used to transform public and private sector organisations by increasing productivity and innovation.

Big data and precision agriculture

One example of the application of big data, to improve efficiencies, is in agriculture. The collection and use of data in precision agriculture is gaining more attention with the advent of new technologies. It is expected to be central in the realisation of big data in agriculture. In precision agriculture, data is gathered from sensors placed throughout the fields on variables such as soil and air quality, temperature and moisture. Satellite imagery and robotic drones can create pictures of fields to show crop maturity. Control centres collect and process such data in real-time to help farmers make decisions with regard to, for example, planting, fertilising and harvesting crops. Such data can be coupled with predictive weather modelling and researchers are able to build models and simulations that can predict future conditions and help farmers make proactive decisions.

Around 60% of UK farmers already use some sort of precision agriculture on their farms, although for the most part this simply means using GPS tractor steering.

Many benefits can be derived from precision agriculture through a better understanding of complex environmental interactions which will improve efficiencies and encourage innovation. Many view this approach as the future of sustainable agriculture, however several challenges have been identified.

  • Farmers are concerned about the highly confidential and competition-sensitive nature of their data about their farm and yields. There is concern that this data could be exploited to manipulate food prices. Assurance is needed about how the data is owned, and shared;
  • Using the Internet of Things (IoT- a system in which objects are connected to a network so that data can be shared) relies on a high speed and quality broadband connection, a feature many rural communities still lack. 13% of UK farmers still don’t have reliable access to the internet and 60% of those with a connection only have speeds of 2Mbps, insufficient to deal with data heavy maps drones and sensors will generate;
  • There would be a requirement for a change in culture amongst farmers to become more tech-savvy; farmers will have to manage terabytes of information.
  • There are very few ‘data’ scientists or people who know how to create and execute the algorithms necessary for analysing large of amounts of data;
  • There is commonly a mismatch in the scale, precision and accuracy of data coming from different sources. This mismatch can create an erroneous picture of what is actually happening in a field;
  • Big data needs to be quality controlled before it is used in algorithms. The necessary quality control procedures can be time-consuming; and
  • Interpretation of products created by algorithms processing large data sets can be subjective.

Big data Government strategies

Welsh Government

In the ethos of big data and data sharing, the Welsh Government’s open data plan sets out its commitment to publish and share data that is meaningful, re-usable and accessible. The Lle Geo-Portal has been developed as a partnership between the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales. Lle serves as a hub for data and information covering a range of topics, but primarily around the environment. The Atlas of Living Wales is being developed by the NBN (National Biodiversity Network) with input from the Welsh Government and will replace the NBN Gateway in providing spatial environmental data for Wales publically.

UK Government

Over the last few years the UK Government has been promoting agri-tech innovation. In 2013 it launched its agri-tech strategy with a budget of £160 million to ‘transform the UK into a world renowned center of agri-tech innovation’. The UK government reinforced its strategy in agriculture in 2014 with Internet of Things technologies to help maximise yields, improve food traceability, and tackle environmental challenges through networked remote sensors, particularly for crop development and genetic research. As part of its open data strategy, in 2015 the UK Government announced its ambition to publicly release 8,000 UK datasets over the following 12 months. Defra stated that:

it will allow UK farmers to apply cutting-edge techniques to boost efficiency and productivity, and allow better monitoring and management of environmental risks.