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Agriculture from the air

Agriculture from the air

Optimizing harvests with drones and 5G

At 5Groningen, there are quite a number of shrewd entrepreneurs with impressive track records and decades of experience. Not Wilco Stollenga. He is 22, studies industrial engineering and management and is the founder of Agrifly. A tiny company that uses drones to bring agriculture to a higher level.

Agrifly conducts a pilot at 5Groningen, the testing ground for the latest generation of mobile internet: 5G. 5Groningen is an initiative of Economic Board Groningen. Here, entrepreneurs and not-for-profit organizations work with experts like VodafoneZiggo to develop use cases with 5G.

Early bird
You might have come across footage like this, on the news or in other media. Farmers using drones to keep an eye on their crops. Four years ago, this concept was scarcely out of the egg. Wilco: "At a time when hardly anyone had laid eyes on any kind of drone, I was there to buy one. Just voor fun. I'd saved up quite some money and decided to aim straight for a reliable model equipped with a high-quality camera. I’d already thought of a way to earn some money with it – making nice aerial photographs of farms in the area and selling them to the farmers in question."

Land in sight
Wilco lives on a farm in Groningen himself. At home he carried out his first experiments. When he looked at the aerial photos on his laptop, something immediately drew his attention. "Even though the crops cultivated on our fields were all the same – and were fertilized and watered in the same way – the pictures showed all kind of differences in the field. Light and dark spots, in other words areas were plants were flourishing or struggling. It quickly dawned on me that I could use this information to help farmers significantly improve their farming."

Big picture
Wilco's business plan was quickly changed round. Since then, his sideline project is booming. His drone is buzzing above the fields according to a fixed flight pattern. Wilco: "To inspect ten hectares, four multispectral cameras take 300 pictures each. Each lens takes responsibility for a different part of the light spectrum. Software amalgamates the 1,200 pictures to generate an overall map that visualizes the photosynthesis of the crops. Based on this I can see if there is any question of soil densification, overplanting or emerging diseases. The disadvantage is that processing all the pictures takes a lot of time. Transferring the files via a hard drive onto my computer already takes hours. I’m talking days before the map is fully finished."

Customer and map
A few years ago, Wilco proactively approached Economic Board Groningen. Could the internet please be made a bit faster in the area, as the sluggish connection was hampering his progress. This initiative was rewarded. With faster internet and a pilot project at 5Groningen. Wilco: "The University of Groningen and VodafoneZiggo are also involved in this pilot. Our goal is to use 5G to transmit my aerial photographs real-time from the drone to a server. With the help of specialized software the entire map should then be generated within five minutes. In this way I can go to the field in question, together with the customer ánd the map, in order to inspect the soil and the crops."

Pilot and practice
The pilot progresses steadily. "In a test environment we already managed to transmit the data to the server over 5G. We’re also well on our way to generate a large map within minutes based on that data." The next step will be to realize this in practice. "After the next upgrade of the VodafoneZiggo radio masts I expect everything to function. And if the software improves a bit, we can overlay maps from different measuring moments and compare them to each other. Then it becomes really exciting what you can learn from the data. For example, the yield of consecutive generations of crops, or what happens when a farmer switches to another crop."

Assuming larger proportions
So, after this pilot nothing stands in Agrifly's way anymore? "It's not that simple", says Wilco. "This technology has enormous potential, agriculture at micro level – plant by plant – is undoubtedly the future. But in order to leverage the benefits, the entire chain has to change too, from customized fertilization plans and cultivation advice, to adaptive machines that can work selectively. That will still take some time. No worries, in the meantime I see lots of other opportunities for my drones. Monitoring industrial areas, power lines, solar parks and so on. The sky is the limit."

Pre-5G
On behalf of VodafoneZiggo, Jarmo Wilkens is involved in this pilot. His view on the project: "It's a great use case that really puts us to the test. How do we get the best out of our network, in speed as well? Just to be perfectly clear, we call it a 5G pilot, but due to our 4G radio masts it is in fact a precursor, pre-5G so to speak. As soon as the real 5G network is in place, providing coverage and fast connections to Wilco's drones will be a piece of cake. But precisely by asking nigh on the impossible right now, we are making the progress we all dream of."