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Living lab project studies use of smart cameras for reducing the use of pesticides in potato and fruit cultivation

Lommel – 11 July 2019. By implementing high-tech cameras on drones or tractors, plant diseases in crops are detected in an earlier stage. This enables farmers to treat these plants in a very targeted way and, as a result, to reduce the use of pesticides. To be able to maximise the potential, we still need to take additional steps towards user-friendly applications for agricultural businesses.

That is exactly the objective of the ‘Smart Farming 4.0’ living lab project, in which seven research centres, including Flanders Make, work together under the supervision of ILVO, the Institute for Farming, Fishing and Food Research. Smart Farming 4.0 is a three-year project that focuses on potato and fruit farming.

Accurate maps of infected sites

The agricultural industry faces huge challenges. We will have to produce more food but, at the same time, the impact of agriculture on the environment must be reduced. Precision farming can play an important role in this. In precision farming, fields are subdivided into smaller blocks and every block is given the exact quantity of pesticides or fertilizer. This is beneficial for both the environment and farmers, who will have a bigger yield and less costs.

Precision farming is also an efficient disease control method. To prevent major crop losses, farmers often treat the entire field with an equal dose of pesticides. However, if farmers know the exact location of infected sites, treatment can become much more targeted.  Research centre imec has developed high-tech, hyperspectral cameras for this that are mounted on drones or tractors. Hyperspectral sensors can register different wavelengths that are not visible to the eye and convert this information into digital images, resulting in very detailed maps of the infected sites. Subsequently, intelligent machines can read the map and translate it into a targeted treatment.  

Research centre Flanders Make performs research into methods to accelerate the automation process. Hard- and software is being implemented and sensor fusion is being applied. The latter is the combination of data from different systems in view of acquiring very accurate data. Increased accuracy and reliability of the system are important conditions for its large-scale introduction into the industry.

Two concrete farming applications

Within the living lab project, two concrete applications are optimised and demonstrated. The first application is the detection of Alternaria in potatoes. Alternaria is a fungal disease generating considerable production losses every year. The challenge here is that the cameras must be able in varying conditions to reliably make the distinction between affected and non-affected plants; also, the whole field must be mapped very accurately. This digital infection map can then be used to control intelligent spraying machines for a targeted treatment.

The second application is fire blight in fruit cultivation. This is a lethal plant disease with a rapidly increasing occurrence in Flanders. The disease not only causes major economic losses but also endangers the export opportunities for the fruit industry. The vision system is implemented on a tractor and captures automatic images. In this way, labour-intensive visual inspections can be avoided and intervening at an early stage becomes possible.

Smart Farming 4.0: project partners

Seven research centres work together for the living lab project ‘Smart Farming 4.0’, each contributing its own array of competences. These are: ILVO, Flanders Make, imec, Proefcentrum Fruitteet vzw, VITO, KU Leuven and the VLAIO-funded innovation cluster Smart Digital Farming.