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Digital transformation of future farming

Digital Innovations Lab
The new Syngenta Digital Innovations Lab will transform the huge resource of digital data now being captured in the field, into a format that can be practically used to make everyday decisions on crop agronomy and farm planning

Digital data and new technologies will transform the way that crops are managed in the future, and enable farmers and agronomists to make pro-active in-season decisions on their crop management, with greater confidence in the results.

Now, an exciting new UK-based Syngenta Digital Innovations Lab has been created to work with growers, agronomists and industry entrepreneurs, along with the company’s researchers and specialists, to make sense of all the data - and deliver practical solutions to aid precision farming development.

Based at Syngenta’s leading science and research facility, Jealott’s Hill International Research Centre in Berkshire, the Lab’s Team Lead, Dave Shepherd (beiow), believes there is now real opportunity and willingness for collaborative ventures to accelerate the adoption of new farming technologies that will enhance efficiency and sustainable food production.

Dave Shepherd - Digital Innocvations Lab Team Lead

“With the sheer pace of change in agriculture and fluctuating economics, the influences are always moving; artificial intelligence can draw on a far wider range of scenarios and results to suggest better solutions,” he advocated. “To be really useful we need to be able to do that faster and faster.”

Multi-functional data

Historic records have always played a big part in any farmers’ decision making. In the past they’ve relied on agronomists’ skills and experience, often built up over years, to assess situations and make decisions. Now, the digital revolution has the capability to help make better decisions on the move, and in real time, to manage crops more effectively.

Drone imagery map

Mr Shepherd pointed out that there is increasing opportunity to capture vast amounts of information in the growing crop – including satellite imagery and remote sensing of plants for disease or nutrition, as well as pinpoint-accurate yield results, for example.

“Being able to utilise all that information to make consistently more reliable decisions will be key to improving productivity and getting the most from available resources in the future," believes Dave.. 

“The challenge is to juggle all the complex multi-functional data, and interpret the information it contains, to enhance the decision making process for farmers and agronomists.

“At various increments and stages, digital data has now become the norm in every industry and everyone’s day-to-day life; farming is no different,” he said.

“The question is how we can now make best use of the technology and its potential.”

Learning apps

Mr Shepherd cited current successful innovative app tools learn from experience and situations in the past, combined with real-time data, to make better decisions for when the same situations could occur again in the future. “The more people that use them and the more data being fed in, then it continuously gets better and more accurate,” he enthused.

Translate that to agriculture - when you can input all the results around varieties, nutrition, soils, cultivations, drilling dates and other aspects that affect crop performance - then you can begin to make plans and in-season decisions based on what’s actually going on and what the likely outcome would be with from any decision.

“With digital data the experience is never lost when the agronomist retires; it just goes on gathering more information and getting better, year after year,” he added.

Engineering answers

Mr Shepherd pointed out that whilst it would always be down to the grower or agronomist to interpret the information and make the final decision, the data from decision support systems can increasingly be dovetailed into variable rate or spot applications, for example, to manage crops more precisely and make more efficient use of inputs. 

Syngenta drone technology

One of the Digital Innovations Lab roles is to seek ways to be able to link together all the hardware for data capture in the field, with the interpretation of the results that will give an output that can be practically applied in the next crop.

The team also incorporates the engineering skills to develop new prototype delivery mechanisms. Equipped with 3D cameras and scanners, allied to CAD capability and the labs own 3D printers, they can initiate, develop and deliver complete application solutions. 

Picture perfect precision

Syngenta New Farming Technologies Lead, Jamie Marshall-Roberts, believes the work of the Digital innovations Lab can empower growers with information to manage crops more effectively.

Adopting technologies that will enable practical use of precision farming agronomy will be essential for farmers to produce more food profitably from every hectare, claimed Jamie (below, left).

Jamie Marshall Roberts, with Dave Shepherd abnd the DIL team

“Farmers have always sought to improve field productivity by managing specific areas more efficiently, typically based on soil type or elevation,” he said.

“We now have the technology and capability to analyse more influences of yield and to combine extremely high levels of precision farming, with large scale efficiency.”   

Jamie highlighted that pickling up variation within the crop opens the potential for managing the field more efficiently, to get the best from nutrition or crop inputs and performance of individual plants. 

“Understanding a wheat variety and detecting its growth patterns through aerial imagery or remote sensing, for example, could enable it to be managed accordingly with input timing and rates to achieve its best possible yield potential in the field,” he advised.

Variable application

Furthermore, picking up variability in vegetation within the field by remote sensing could enable target spraying of specific weeds, for example. “Initially that maybe patches but, potentially in the future, for individual plants.

“That could bring cost savings for farmers and, with better targeting of sprays, a more sustainable product use,” reported Jamie.

He believed the powerful imagery of satellites and the interpretive data that would enable real-time decision making and influence agronomy activities would soon be available. 

Precision application based on digital data is on the cusp of commercial availability

Jamie highlighted that farmers have been fast adopters of innovation and technology, to see how it could integrate into their farming systems, particularly with farm equipment, varieties and agronomy, for example.

“It is an incredibly fast moving area. Growers need to be taking the first steps to explore how it can be implemented within a farm’s existing system.”