Present and future of precision agriculture in Brazil

drone agricultura 4.0

“Only 25% of farmers manage their business through specific digital tools.”

Rouverson Pereira da Silva is the Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Association of Agricultural Engineering, founding member of the Brazilian Association of Precision Agriculture, Professor at the São Paulo State University Júlio de Mesquita Filho (UNESP) in Jaboticabal.

Prof. Dr. Rouverson

Rouverson Pereira da Silva, Professor at Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho (UNESP) – Jaboticabal

Agriculture is undergoing a revolution resulting from the availability of adaptive and integrative industrial technologies, which have been rapidly incorporated into rural areas. Adoption of these new tools points to the emergence of a new agriculture: Digital Agriculture or 4.0.

Digital Agriculture associates agricultural processes with Information and Communication Technologies, Data Science and Control and Automation Engineering, using remote sensing (proximal or orbital) which, combined with the use of artificial intelligence by cognitive algorithms of Machine (deep) Learning, Internet of Things (IoT) and connectivity, generates thousands of bytes of information (Big Data), useful for managing agroecosystems for sustainable production of food, energy and natural fibers.

Volume, speed and variety are foundational for Agricultural Big Data. There is no complexity restriction. If decision support is functional and cost-effective, then it is valid to implement.

Mapping technologies, monitoring of agricultural activities and soil study must all be carried out in an integrated manner and, if possible, in real time, allowing for quick and effective management through Information Technology.


Example of Variability Map

Digital Agriculture is already on its way. We have several alternatives of Precision Agriculture (AP). AP is a set of tools and technologies applied to allow agricultural management based on spatial and temporal variability of farms, aiming at economic return and reducing environmental impact.

It is common in Brazilian rural properties to use Precision Mechanized Seeding (SMP), in which sensors and mechanisms insert the seed into the furrow at the desired depth and maintain excellent contact between soil and seed. One of the mechanisms available for this is the downward force (Downforce): it consists of the application of vertical loads on the sowing unit to maintain homogeneity in seed deposition, through depth control, automatic or not. Manual mode requires lift and down force to be set by the operator, while automatic mode adjusts the amount of lift force according to the down force needs of each row.

Regarding pesticide application, new technologies had a great boost from the evolution of Precision Agriculture and variable rate applications. There are several options for products and services, such as spray drones, optical sensors, systems for aircraft with variable rate applications, sprayers equipped with more accurate telemetry and positioning systems, in addition to remote monitoring systems with smartphones.

Regarding mechanized harvesting, technology available in harvesters has greatly advanced, especially for crops such as soybeans and cotton: examples are the use of productivity and humidity monitors; artificial intelligence to identify harvesting problems (grain losses, grain damages, presence of impurities, among others) allowing, in addition to visualization of productivity and crop humidity in real time during harvesting, control of other essential machine functions.

These technologies have high potential for managing harvesting operations and obtaining better indicators of economic return to the producer.

Currently, agricultural tractors also have a high technological index, with several sensors to monitor agricultural operations and increase mechanical availability.

Other techniques have great potential for application in Brazilian agriculture: monitoring soil conditions; plant sensing, aiming at the management of pests and diseases, definition of the ideal time for the harvest, and intelligent irrigation, with the application of blades in the right amount and time, thus performing precision irrigation.

Involving knowledge from several areas, Digital Agriculture needs the interaction of many professionals, with varied expertise, to develop new technologies for data analysis, capable of providing information for producers to effectively manage their properties.

One of the central issues of Digital Agriculture is to allow various types of data, obtained continuously through sensors (allocated in plants,soil, agricultural machines and implements, or in orbital platforms) to be combined with climate and production, stored jointly in data processing centers. Through telemetry and connectivity between platforms, this data can be analyzed and converted into information, allowing for quick and correct decision-making.

Practically all rural producers today use cell phones, allowing them to enter Agriculture 4.0 era. A survey carried out by SEBRAE in 2017 found that 96% of rural producers use cell phones and 71% of rural micro-entrepreneurs and 85% of small business owners in the countryside use smartphones to access the internet. But only 25% of producers manage their business through specific digital tools. However, 64% of respondents would use these features, were they available.

In Brazil, one of the biggest obstacles to the full development of Digital Agriculture is lack of good connectivity in the field, hindering the technological advance of this sector. Even in regions with good technological development, large extensions of areas with no signal are still common. Several regions of the country still only have a 3G connection, while others do not even have this.

According to an estimate released jointly by the Ministries of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) and Communications (MC), only 23% of Brazilian rural area is covered with a mobile internet signal, making it difficult to increase the valuation of Brazilian agricultural production. A study released by MAPA and MC points to a positive impact of more than US $9 billion, in the case of expansion of coverage in rural areas from 23% to 48%, and more than US $19 billion, if it increased to 90%.

Telephone operators are not interested in expanding coverage in rural areas. The solutions for rural producers to use network technology must come from the joint action of companies linked to the agricultural sector and telephone companies, in order to make the business more attractive for the latter, and allow the development of integrated platforms for mobile broadband communication and sensing, enabling the adoption of Digital Agriculture, regardless of the geographic position and structure of companies and farms.

The future has arrived, through agriculture carried out with high technology, allowing the intelligent management of rural properties. The more sensors and the more artificial intelligence applied to agricultural management, the higher the productivity and the lower the production costs. Producers can only enter into this context, or they will be outdated professionals.

We are sure that Agriculture will reinvent itself and new technologies will revolutionize the field, soon moving from Agriculture 4.0 to 5.0. In this agriculture of the future, which should take place in the middle of this century, we will strongly incorporate automation and robotization, with the use of autonomous machines (tractors and sprayers) and agricultural robots, mainly for the harvesting of special crops, in which the selective harvesting is a necessity.