The role of automation in agriculture and livestock
Agriculture with a wide offer of low cost working force is no longer a reality. The reduction of the rural population and the need for a qualified contingent have been increasingly highlighted by farmers. To keep the next generations in rural environments is a major challenge. Many sectors, mainly of crops and tropical varieties, such as castor oil plant (Ricinus communis L.), açaí (Euterpe oleracea), and African palm oil (Elaeis guineensis), have no solutions to apply. To increase the performance of the work in the field, reduce the painfulness and improve the quality of life in farming activities, it is strategic to ensure sustainability.
Automation, in this sense, comes to occupy an important position for the country, not only concerning competitiveness, but primarily for the future of food security and worldwide agroenergy.
Agricultural automation can be understood as a system in which the operating processes of agricultural production, livestock and/or forestry are monitored, controlled, and run by means of machines and mechanical, electronic or computer-based devices, to enlarge the capacity of human work.
In this way, automation exerts its function on agricultural, livestock and forestry processes to increase the productivity and labor system; optimize the use of time, of inputs and of capital; reduce losses in production; increase the quality of products; and improve the quality of life of farming and chains workers.
The use of term has been borrowed both from the industrial and commercial automation segments, as agribusiness is integrated within a broad management view, in parallel, chained links.
In addition to these industries, there are two sectors that serve agriculture. The parts sector and the manufacturer of agricultural implements. The parts sector operates in various markets, brings and tests new technologies, but also serves other industries and few specialize in the agricultural and livestock sector. It is heavily dependent on the demand of the market.
The implements sector is formed by about 600 manufacturers. The vast majority was developed when attending producers who had a large number of workers with low technical qualification.
This is the usual profile of those who work with small and medium-sized agricultural producers. A few (less than 1%) have at their disposal teams with the ability to develop a technological level electronics compatible with what tractor industries have. These producers are linked to the Brazilian Association of Machinery and Equipment (Abimaq).
It is an industry that generates about 10 billion BRL per year, with perspectives of that number following the increased performance of agriculture. However, it lacks support to aggregate or develop new technologies and, therefore, it is potentially vulnerable to competitiveness of transnational industries. Its competitive advantage comes from the proximity to the productive sector and, for this reason, its technological basis still meets the customer's needs very well.
At this point, it is appropriate to observe that the agricultural production sector has a strong bond with the environmental and cultural features, empirical and tacit knowledges, and its domain does not require the immersion of a team of developers.
Brazilian livestock has also experienced growth and achieved a position that is no less important. Automation in this sector, in countries where this technology is well developed such as the EU and the USA, is very diverse. Robotic milking systems, autonomous feed distribution systems, nutritional balancing for feed, identification of sanity, among others, are already on the market and available to producers.
In Brazil, perhaps the cost-benefit ratio of automation has not been perceived so much as to have producers invest in this process, but, as in agriculture, tropical livestock farming has its own features, especially considering the extent that the activity occupies. Livestock uses about 70% of the area used by rural activities with more than 200 million heads of cattle. In this extensive process, identifying, locating and carrying out animal monitoring has many challenges, intensified by the distances involved.
Other segments that are no less important are those that use protected environments. Although automation technology for that purpose is available, it has not been absorbed by the market yet. Automated greenhouses and breeding grounds are not yet part of Brazil's reality.
It is an area that requires discussion, including the sectors of parts, services, and consulting. Therefore, the challenge is primarily the market size and itwill probably be necessary to adapt costs and to train professionals. At this point, poultry farming has received more support, with automation parts suppliers in the country.
The automation market for irrigation, for example, is not mature enough yet. Computerization of decision-making and performance in the level of management of precision irrigation is a global challenge, since 70% of the water consumed in the world is used in irrigation.
Embrapa had already understood this need and has been developing solutions regarding the agricultural automation theme since the early 1990s.
Currently, Embrapa is implementing a Portfolio of Research, Development and Innovation Projects on Agricultural, Livestock and Forestry Automation. It is an tool to prospect the market's demands and opportunities, needs for public goods and to introduce technological solutions for the competitiveness and sustainability of Brazilian agriculture.
An example of successful automation is precision agriculture - a management system that takes into account the spatial variability of crop to increase economic return and reduce environmental impact by applying tools, mainly electronics in agricultural machinery and geographic information systems.
Modern fundamentals of precision agriculture, according to the literature, appeared in 1929, in the United States, but the resurgence and spread of the technique, occurred only in the 1980s, when computers, sensors and systems of terrestrial or satellite tracking were available and enabled the dissemination of concepts, determination and management of spatial and temporal variability.
Precision agriculture has excelled mainly in the United States, but many reports have been published about the development of the technology, both in research and in the implementation in countries such as Germany, Argentina, Australia, Brazil and England.
In Brazil, the first research actions were held at griculture School "Luiz de Queiroz" of the University of São Paulo (USP/Esalq) in 1997, where a pioneering work with corn crop resulted in the first map of variability of Brazil's harvest, according to professor Luiz Antonio Balastreire. There was also growth in research/extension initiatives in agriculture, with involvement of institutions like Esalq/USP, State University of Campinas (Unicamp), Embrapa, ABC Foundation, Agronomic Institute of Paraná (Iapar), Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM), in addition to numerous private companies of the agricultural technological sector and cooperatives of producers, as well as producers.
In 1998, the activities of precision agriculture started at Embrapa as a consequence of the elaboration of the Program 12 - Agricultural Automation. Between 1999 and 2003, two pioneering research projects were conducted with resources from the Program of Competitive Funds for agricultural research funding from the World Bank (Prodetab), coordinated by Embrapa Maize and Sorghum and Embrapa Soils, focusing respectively on maize and soybean crops.
The first project was a partnership of the farm equipment maker AGCO with the Federal University of Viçosa Department of Agricultural Engineering. The second counted with the support of the ABC Foundation (Castro, PR) and of the Agriculture School "Luiz de Queiroz" of the University of São Paulo (USP/Esalq). Also in 1999, the theme precision agriculture was part of some research conducted in Embrapa's Virtual Laboratory Abroad (Labex), having as a partner the American counterpart, United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), in Lincoln, Nebraska (USA).
In 2004, Embrapa initiated the first networked project (Macroprogram 1) concerning the theme Precision Agriculture as a continuation of the activities of previous projects. Considering the theme to be strategic for the country, Embrapa has approved, in 2009, a second project, involving 20 of Embrapa's Research Centers and more than 50 partners, such as companies, research institutions, universities and rural producers. There are more than 200 researchers and 15 experimental units distributed in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast and South regions of the country, with 11 research on perennial and annual crops and about 100 Research, Development & Innovation activities. The experimental fields involve the annual crops maize, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat; perennial and semi-perennial crops such as forestry (eucalyptus), fruit crops (peach, apple, orange and vine), sugarcane and pastures.
Some results obtained since the network was created can already be singled out, in the form of technologies, products and services:
- Agricultural robot for massive collection of data on soil and plants;
- Geofielder: software for data and image collection for smartphones;
- Implement for limestone distribution at ISOBUS standard rate;
- Softwares for airborne image processing: mosaicing; plant counts; identification of soil, crop, and stubble areas; identification of diseases (such as HLB); identification of nematodes pests and invasive plants;
- Dihedral sensor for measurement of the water available to the plant;
- Electric conductivity measurement system adaptable to different implements and for use in perennial crops;
- Software and network of wireless sensors for precision irrigation management;
- Methodologies and equipment to determine plant nutritional stresses;
- Equipment for early detection of HLB (greening) in citrus;
- Test bench for the development of precision spraying;
- Risk analysis of invasive plant infestation in maize crops;
EIn September 2013, Embrapa opened in São Carlos (SP), the National Reference Laboratory on Precision Agriculture (Lanapre). The space, unheard of in Brazil, is used to research and develop equipment, sensors, and mechanical and electronics components in a single location.
The installation relies on a computational geoinformatics system to handle the massive data generated in the field, and to produce information for management in precision agriculture. The development of electronic control units (ECU) and software for machinery and implements from different manufacturers, compatible with the ISOBUS international standard, are also envisaged on the premises.
The five-hectare experimental field around the Laboratory is equipped with small planting areas to support the development of evaluation methodologies, functions prototypes of machines, equipment, sensors, actuators and embark RGB and hyperspectral cameras on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Lanapre, built with the support of parliamentary amendments of the National Congress, also brings a partnership model involving two research centers: Embrapa Instrumentation (which has dedicated itself to the topic for more than two decades), and Embrapa Southeast Livestock (which will have an important contribution in the area of precision livestock farming), which gave the physical space for the implementation of the laboratory in an area of the Canchim Farm.
Agricultural and livestock processes, from the most traditional (as harvests) to the most innovative (as precision agriculture), have their own characteristics and opportunities for automation. Many aspects should be considered in order to obtain a sustainable economic process, such as the social and environmental aspects. Although automation seem to act in a specialized form, agricultural automation requires a holistic and systemic approach to achieve its goal.
In the Internet age, in which social networks, cloud computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, and other technologies have dominated innovation in society, agricultural production as a system distributed throughout the country in various chains, is one of the biggest potential beneficiaries of this automation process.
This agricultural integration has been designed by the academy under the theme "Farm Management Information System – FMIS". The idea of connecting market, climate and technologies information, among others, is a conceptual model, but provides light to the real specific possibilities and demands of agricultural and livestock chains. It makes clear the role of automation and standardization in key points of integration, including robotics.
By looking at the changes of society and of scenarios, Embrapa inserted automation in its portfolio. Embrapa's role in this process can be very broad and there are big gaps to be filled.
Agriculture and livestock and their chains are very complex. Attract actors of industrial/commercial automation to act on the needs and opportunities of the sector is a role that Embrapa has already been performing and should expand partnerships to increase the potential for innovation.
To ensure for future generations, it is necessary to reduce the painfulness of the work in the field. Embrapa and its partners should identify and adapt the technologies already available and create new ones to producers in order to help them use those technologies, especially small producers. The development of automated solutions for tropical crops such as African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), açaí (Euterpe oleracea) and castor oil plant (Ricinus communis L.), among many others, should be encouraged.