An airborne-ground platform for the integral, ecological and optimised management of olive groves
Our knowledge about the origin of the olive tree domestication for use in agriculture is relatively unsure. The Olea europaea (“European olive”)—the farmed species as we know it today—is believed to have appeared in an area that stretched from the Caucasus to Iran and the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine some 6.000 years ago. From these regions, and throughout different centuries and civilisations, it spread to Anatolia, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and the rest of the Mediterranean basin. It is in its westernmost stretch, basically the south of Spain and Portugal, where the cultivation of the olive tree and its magnificent resources have been exlpoited to become an economic and social feature of utmost importance.
Currently, agriculture in general and olive growing in particular are facing important challenges that derive to a large extent from the expected drastic increase in the world population. The rapid development of densely populated countries such as China or India causes world population estimations to grow from 7.2 billion people today to 9.6 billion by 2050 (according to UN data). Within this exponential increase in food demand, today’s agriculture must evolve decisively and rapidly towards a paradigm of optimal and sustainable production of natural resources. Indeed, optimising water use, struggling against crop soil desertification or minimising agricultural contamination caused by excessive use of fertilisers or pesticides, among others, are underlying issues on which to build the success of the challenge of population increase and demand.
The development that technology has undergone in recent decades both in quality and miniaturisation has exceeded even the expectations of our most optimistic pioneers. Currently, we have compact centimetre precision geo-positioning systems, high-resolution minicameras, high performing batteries, light drones with increased autonomy, internet connection in the palm of our hands as well as a very long etcetera. In addition, the advanced level of knowledge reached in terms of artificial intelligence to be able to “exploit” the potential of this entire technological ecosystem means that, in short, we currently have before us an almost unlimited universe of possibilities.
It is within this latter context that precision agriculture takes place. Its main pursuit is providing farmers with objective and precise information about their crops by making use of all the available technological resources; generating capacities for measuring, analysing and treating at the level of individualised trees, or very small plant environments, anticipating shortages of irrigation, excess of fertigation, lack of growth and nutrients, appearance of pests and diseases, etc.
The Control and Robotics Research Group of the University of Huelva, TEP 192, which I have the pleasure to lead, manages the European research project “TecnOlivo: technologies for the monitoring and management of olive cultivation.” The project is financed with European Regional Development Funds through the Interreg V-A Spain – Portugal (POCTEP) 2014-2020 Programme; and had its initial steps on 4 December 2017.
Apart from the University of Huelva as the coordinator of TecnOlivo, the rest of consortium made up by the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA, Spain), the Instituto Nacional de Investigação Agrária e Veterinária (INIAV, Portugal), the software development company Ubiwhere LDA. (Portugal), the Sociedad Cooperativa Andaluza Nuestra Señora de la Oliva (Oleodiel, Spain) and the corporation Murtigao – Sociedade Agrícola, S.A. (ELAIA, Portugal).
With a budget of just over 2.5 million euros, TecnOlivo pursues the modernisation of the olive sector and optimising its performance. To this end, a pioneering, business and easy-to-use device is being developed that will allow the integral, ecological and optimised management of irrigated olive groves through the non-invasive monitoring of key agronomic parameters such as nutritional status and water stress.
In order to make TecnOlivo successful, an autonomous aerial vehicle (drone) is being tested equipped with centimetre a precision geo-positioning system and photographic, infrared and thermal cameras. This configuration automatically monitors great crop extensions in few minutes taking scenes of different characteristics and georeferencing them, and providing information on the agronomic parameters being measured. This aerial information is also complemented with measures coming from a network of low-cost sensors installed and distributed along the olive grove. Each point along the ground sensor network continuously monitors the agronomic state of individual olive trees. The entire platform of sensors provides real-time and fingertip information through smart mobile devices, tablets and laptops; and also delivers calibration references for images that are being taken during the monitoring flights.
Easy to Use
The latter is of uttermost importance and represents a significant advance with respect to what is found in the market nowadays. Indeed, the services currently offered by the industry provide farmers with illustrated maps in terms of mathematical indices, such as the NDVI, which are difficult to interpret. In contrast, TecnOlivo uses infield point measures to calibrate the continuous measures taken by the drone to generate maps expressed in terms of amount of nitrogen, calcium, water stress, etc. The whole system integrates communication devices for sending the acquired data to a server, which is equipped with the artificial intelligence necessary for the correct interpretation of the data. Finally, and as one of the goals of the project is to create a user-friendly tool for the farmer, a set of applications for smart mobile devices, tablets and laptops is being developed. The Apps will allow the olive grower to know through calibrated, coloured and illustrated maps the results of the analysis; and, therefore, in which parts of the olive grove and only there is irrigation, fertigation or certain treatments will be applied and to what extent.
TecnOlivo presents an integral solution; in the sense that it is not only a matter of carrying out flights with drones to obtain crop data by means of cameras or other sensors, which can already be done today but also embodying a complete solution that integrates data collection, transmission, processing, interpretation, visualization and treatment opportunities in a down-to-earth and ergonomic way for the farmer. In addition, TecnOlivo works toward being a system solely managed by the farmer; so that after a short learning process, it stands for another tool as the tractor or tillage instruments, which the olive grower has at his/her disposal to carry out his/her daily work. In fact, TecnOlivo includes a dynamic configuration so as to identify different areas of the olive grove that show greater variability; and, once these areas are set from the air, the ground sensor network is installed in situ.
TecnOlivo represents an extraordinary added-value for the olive cultivation sector of Andalusia and southern Portugal by providing technology transfer from the University directly to the end-users, and increases business opportunities, profitability and high-quality employment.