Switzerland excels in precision mechanics and electronics, disciplines that have supported the spread of robotics. In 2010, the Swiss National Science Foundation launched the National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics, the first of its kind in engineering sciences. After 12 years and an investment of around 85 million francs, the loan will end in November 2022.
The role of professional drones
Switzerland is not specialized in the manufacture of robots; Swiss expertise lies in research and start-ups dealing with new materials, programming and artificial intelligence.
In particular, the country leads in the creation of professional drones, mainly used to obviate the visual limitations of man. A strategic advantage for the agricultural sector.
An accurate and strategic sight
Drones and satellites have become a popular tool for farmers to survey their lands and generate crop data with the help of agritech companies. They use different types of image-gathering technology depending on the site, such as special drone-mounted cameras to assess crop status. For example, the use of hyperspectral cameras allows drones to capture 40 different bands of light, compared to three in standard cameras. This system detects subtle variations in light reflected on the plant and reads its condition.
A wide range of information
Between 20 and 40% of the world’s grain harvest is currently lost to pests and disease, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, the average farm can generate half a million data points per day: from soil temperature to individual milk yields to the presence of pests in a crop. When this information is turned into sound advice, farmers can operate much more accurately, using fewer resources.
Even in one field of maize, for example, there may be different patches that need replanting, or the application of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides at a given time.
The Fourth Agricultural Revolution
This change towards micro-managing farms with sophisticated information while reducing their ecological footprint has been referred to as the Fourth Agricultural Revolution. The so-called agritech sector, which is experiencing a boom worldwide and promoting innovation and digitalisation in agriculture, is one of the stated aims of Switzerland’s new agriculture strategy for 2022-2025.
The problem of planting gaps
Swiss start-ups are focusing on producing solutions to detect planting gaps (one of the main causes of crop yield losses) with drones. When the gaps are identified, the grower can replant in the most problematic areas. Apart from gathering data or spraying crops from the air, there are also developments taking place at ground level, with drones being developed for various tasks such as weeding, the application of fertilizer or fruit harvesting.
Interpretation of bio-signals
A further novelty is the approach to the analysis of plants through the monitoring and interpretation of bio-signals. Some companies have developed a sensor which is attached to a plant. Plants emit different signals depending on the stress or stimulus, which can be interpreted to assess different crop conditions. As the researchers explain, the project is based on the recording of signals when the plant is healthy, stressed or stimulated and the use of artificial intelligence to interpret the signals, as if it were a language.
With the wealth of information and new systems now available to farmers, the challenge at this point is to match farms with the right technology package. The growth area of smart agriculture is and will therefore be consultancy.