Smart agriculture is a "savior" that solves challenges facing agriculture
"Smart agriculture” utilizing ICT and IIoT is recently coming into full swing as the number of farmers decreases due to declining birth rates and an aging population. Smart agriculture is also known as “next-generation agriculture,” and expectations of it as a potential "savior" to solve challenges facing Japanese agriculture are growing.
The main features of smart agriculture include "large-scale production," "high-quality production and large harvests," "labor saving for agricultural work," "ease of work for non-experts," and "providing peace of mind and trust to consumers." Let's start by taking a look at the merits produced by each feature.
Smart agriculture merit (1): Large-scale production
Advances such as automatic driving of agricultural machinery such as tractors and the introduction of robots and drones enable expanded production scales on large-scale farms.
Smart agriculture merit (2): High-quality production and large harvests
Use of various sensor technologies and past data to optimize crop cultivation realizes high quality and large harvests.
Smart agriculture merit (3): Labor saving for agricultural work
Introduction of technology such as power assist suits and automatic operation of agricultural work equipment frees workers from difficult and dangerous work.
Smart agriculture merit (4): Ease of work for non-experts
Operation assist devices for agricultural work equipment, production management apps, and compilation of cultivation know-how data, etc. promote development of an environment where even non-experts and relatively inexperienced workers can handle the work.
Smart agriculture merit (5): Providing peace of mind and trust to consumers
Connections between producers and producing districts and consumers are promoted by use of cloud systems to provide production information, etc.
Smart agriculture trends in various countries
In the United States, the world's largest agricultural power, smart agriculture is called "AgTech," a combination of “agriculture” and “technology.” Drones are used on vast swathes of farmland to spray optimal amounts of pesticides over the appropriate ranges, and to collect and analyze data such as the growth status of crops and the soil status from above.
Meanwhile, as a background to the growing full-fledged smart agriculture in Japan, there are many tasks at agricultural sites that cannot be done without relying on labor-intensive work and the intuition and experience of experts. As the nation as a whole ages and the birth rate remains low, issues such as reducing the burden on elderly workers, resolving labor shortages, and passing on skills and techniques to younger generations are becoming more serious, and expectations for smart agriculture are growing as a potential solution.
Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) starts demonstration tests in 148 districts nationwide
Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) launched the "Smart Agriculture Demonstration Project" from 2019 to accelerate the social implementation of smart agriculture. This project is being conducted by multiple consortiums consisting of entities such as producers, private companies, universities, and research institutes, and is deploying demonstration experiments tailored to the items cultivated in each region, such as rice and field crops, fruit trees, and flowers, in 148 districts nationwide.
According to the project interim report in 2020, the introduction of technologies such as robot tractors, automatic water management systems, and pesticide spraying drones in large rice paddies has led to a reduction in working hours of around 15%. The report also revealed the effectiveness of pesticide spraying drones and automatic water management systems.
However, this project is also revealing new issues such as increasing costs due to additional investment for new technologies in not-so-large demonstration areas. MAFF plans to examine items such as standards for determining appropriate utilization areas in line with smart device capabilities and equipment sharing to reduce the initial investment burden.
Use of LPWA to boost smart agriculture
Various ICT and IIoT technologies such as 5G, cloud, and robots are used in smart agriculture, and local governments and other entities nationwide are also promoting initiatives to use ICT called LPWA. LPWA is an abbreviation of "Low Power Wide Area," and does not refer to a specific standard, but rather is a general term for wireless communication technology that features "wide-area communication with low power consumption."
LPWA is low speed and low capacity, but also has the advantages of power saving, wide-area and long-distance communication, and low cost. This makes it suitable for networks that achieve smart regional problem-solving technologies such as crop cultivation, disaster prevention, monitoring, and infrastructure management. Initiatives are spreading particularly in the agricultural sector to measure the growing environment (temperature, humidity, brightness, CO2 concentration, etc.) of farms and greenhouses with sensors and automatically transmit this information at regular intervals with LPWA. Producers can use the cloud to monitor these values anywhere without having to go to the crop production site, and systems for automatic notification by email or other means when a sensor detects an abnormal value have also been built.
According to market research firm Fuji Keizai, the Japanese smart agriculture market is predicted to be 102.4 billion yen in 2030, an increase of 44.2% over 2019. Fully artificial light-type plant factories in particular are expected to grow for reasons including larger introduction scales and increased vegetable demand for commercial use and processing. Smart agriculture is expected to spread further in sectors where a certain market scale already exists, such as cultivation environment monitoring systems, agricultural drones, and satellite positioning and automatic steering systems. In addition, use of production management systems as platforms for data utilization in smart agriculture is also expected.