Israel's biggest invention in agriculture, with the possible exception of the cherry tomato, is drip irrigation, which enables farmers to irrigate enormous fields without being there, while saving water. A lot of water has dripped onto the fields since then, and agriculture is now attempting to move into the 21st century.
Startups in precision agriculture all over the world are trying to improve farmers' work by monitoring the state of the field and the plant. One of these startups, Israeli company Prospera Technologies, is trying to develop the next big thing: an autonomous sprinkler. If it succeeds, it will make it possible to grow crops without human contact, using a set of systems that will manage the field autonomously: irrigation, spraying, and fertilizing.
The company has announced that it reached a milestone this week - cooperation with global giant Valmont Irrigation. For the first time, Prospera will be able to gather information of this type from large fields. As part of this cooperation, Prospera's system will be installed on the irrigation systems of Valmont and Valmont's Valley subsidiary, which manufactures irrigation equipment currently installed on nearly 30 million acres. Valley has a 40% share of the market of pivot irrigation system users. Cooperation will be for three years, with a joint $40 million investment by the two companies.
"Precision agriculture has not realized its full potential and promise. Initial steps have been taken and all sorts of elements are being constructed, some of them in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Now we're bringing the technology to agricultural fields with a very strategic partner, working technology that has already proven itself in hothouses, and on an enormous scale," Prospera cofounder and CEO Daniel Koppel told "Globes."
Kopel founded the company in 2014 together with CTO Simeon Shpiz and VP R&D Raviv Itzhaky. The company raised $15 million in its most recent financing round from venture capital funds and strategic investors, including Qualcomm Ventures, Cisco Investments, and Bessemer Venture Partners.
Expansion from hothouses to field crops
Information gathering on agricultural fields currently utilizes satellite and aerial photographs, both of which make it possible to visually analyze the fields and plants and detect pests and diseases. Another source of information is sensors spread around a field that monitor the state of the plant by sensing various types of waves emitted by them. Up until now, sensors of this type have not been deployed in fields on a large scale, because installing them is very expensive, and does not necessarily justify the farmers' investment.
Prospera has developed a precision agricultural system based on center pivot irrigation that is capable of analyzing crops and providing recommendations on irrigation and increasing yields to growers based on the information obtained.
Irrigation systems of this type rotate around a central axis, irrigating a circular area. An advantage of this type of irrigation system is that it can be expanded efficiently when the crop area expands. The fact that the irrigation system runs over every point in the field will enable the two companies to gather information from the field using Prospera's sensors installed on it. Prospera also gathers and analyzes information from satellite photos and aerial photography.
The combination of different sources of information will allow Prospera to analyze both visible and invisible information. The pictures make it possible to detect pests, insects, and diseases in the field by processing visual information. The sensors developed jointly by the two companies are capable of absorbing light waves emitted by the earth and the plants at wavelengths invisible to the eye, and of detecting a lack of irrigation or fertilizer, for example, using various waves emitted from plants when they are in certain biological states, such as lacking carbon or water.
Koppel predicts that in the first year of the cooperation agreement, the company will succeed in identifying anomalies in fields. In the second year, it will be able to precisely identify the problem involved, warn a farmer about a lack of fertilizer or water, and recommend a solution to the problem. He says that the third year of cooperation will produce an autonomous crop management system. This means that the companies will be able to take an ordinary irrigation machine and turn it into a machine capable of learning by itself, using the data it gathers from the field and other sources, such as sensors and the farmer, in order to provide the right amount of water, fertilizer, and spraying.
"This is one of the biggest inventions in agriculture, but also in artificial intelligence. This technology is the spearhead in the sector, especially because it is being used for a good purpose. Humanity will have to feed 10 billion people before too long," Koppel says.
Prospera has hitherto operated in greenhouses, and cooperated with Invernex, the largest greenhouse company in Latin America. According to Koppel, there is more potential in agricultural fields than in greenhouses: "In a greenhouse, the farmer invests more in the plant, takes a bigger risk, and generates more revenue. It's a very difficult sector for making decisions, but simpler for gathering data, because the farmer already gives special attention to each plant," he says.
In open fields, on the other hand, it is difficult to gather information about plants individually, because the investment required to install sensors in the field is too high in comparison with the yield from field crops. According to Koppel, an average farmer in the US will generate $60,000 per acre in a greenhouse and $800 per acre in a cornfield.
Precision agriculture will save time and costs
Prospera has monitored more than $5 billion worth of agricultural produce, mainly in greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables, and its revenue amounts to millions of dollars a year. The partnership between Prospera and Valmont will be based on extending Prospera's technology to field crops, such as corn, soybeans, and potatoes. Koppel says that it will generate tens of millions of dollars in added potential revenue.
Installment will take place in three stages. In the first year, the system will be installed in 8,500 irrigation systems. If all goes as planned, the system will be installed in 40,000-50,000 systems by the end of the second year and 100,000 systems by the end of the third year. Prospera is investing $20 million in buying satellite and aerial photographs as part of its partnership.
Installing Prospera's technology will require Valley to become more of a technology company itself. Today, 60,000 of Valley's 250,000 systems are connected to the cloud, and can therefore be connected to Prospera's platform. At the end of the cooperation period, Valley plans to connect 120,000 systems to the cloud, which will require it to invest $20 million. For the sake of comparison, the world's second largest irrigation company in this sector, which has 20% of the global market, has only 10,000 connected irrigation systems.
"Growers using central pivot irrigation can use it as often as required, thanks to its permanent presence in the field. Now, we'll be able to utilize this permanent presence of pivot irrigation in the field to gather information that the grower can't obtain in any other way, and provide critical information to growers that will facilitate precision agriculture. This will save time, reduce costs, and increase yields," says Valmont president and CEO Stephen Kaniewski.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 21, 2019
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