The WatchITgrow platform developed by VITO Remote Sensing enables farmers to monitor their plots easily and efficiently. The application is mainly fed by data generated from air and space. Also agricultural machinery can be a valuable source of information. With the launch of a new collaboration, VITO is now rolling out an initial operational version of the application in potato cultivation.

Crop monitoring plays an important role in precision agriculture. VITO has spent many years now researching and developing ways of making data obtained via remote sensing available to farmers, to enable them to monitor their fields and crops more effectively, and in turn increase their yields. The data are gathered from sensors on (unmanned) aircraft, drones and satellites, and each of these remote sensing technologies offers specific advantages.

However, reliable and usable data do not always need to be generated from analysis from the air. The fields are also an important source of ‘real-world’ data produced by smart agricultural machinery. This type of data generation on the ground has already been the subject of many experiments, including for potato farming. One of the pioneers in this area is AVR, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery in western Flanders. The company is in the process of equipping its harvesters and planters with sensors that are able to gather technical and agronomic data in and around the field. The data from all of the sensors are then collected in the cloud, where they serve as input for an online application that the company has developed and is offering to its customers: AVR Connect.

There are, however, also areas of overlap with the online information platform WatchITgrow, which farmers can use to monitor their plots easily and efficiently. This platform covers the entire agricultural sector and is fed by data generated from the air and space, but also data relating to soil conditions, weather and climate, and finally data from users themselves. What is more, it draws on the rich data set of AVR Connect: at the end of last year, AVR and VITO entered into a collaborative partnership with the aim of creating higher added value for farmers. The parties agreed to systematically integrate each other's data sets into both applications. “We collect real-world data from the fields, while VITO uses data from the air and space to study the fields”, explains Koen Uyttenhove from AVR. “So, joining forces obviously makes sense.”

“This collaboration allows us to combine one another’s strengths”, says Jürgen Decloedt from VITO. “A company like AVR is a true specialist in agricultural data at field level, while our core business focuses more on gathering, processing and analysing data. We use satellite and drone data and combine them with soil, weather and other data, as well as all kinds of online data sources, which we then analyse using A.I. techniques.”

Potato growers can use a personal account to easily view planting data, yields and other information via AVR Connect. From the start of the next growing season, they will notice that the contours of their fields are visible and that other data are also presented in a highly visualised way. All of this is thanks to the linking of both data sets, whereby data flows from WatchITgrow to AVR Connect. “Combining both data sets is extremely valuable for our crop farmers, as it enables us to provide more valid advice more quickly,” says Uyttenhove.

In return, valuable data relating to the planting and harvesting of potatoes is supplied to VITO Remote Sensing, which is working on continuously improving WatchITgrow. “It is a data platform, after all,” notes Decloedt. “The data supplied by AVR from its harvesters are an important driver when it comes to providing more valid advice to farmers.” The integration of the two datasets will be complete by early Spring 2020.

The development of information platforms such as WatchITgrow forms part of a broader evolution within agriculture towards more data-driven farming. Decisions made on the basis of reliable and accurate information can not only make agriculture far more efficient, but also far more sustainable. This is the only way forward for potato growing in Flanders, as there is no room to expand the existing 100,000 hectares of potato fields.

It goes without saying that this ‘digitalisation’ of potato cultivation benefits from close collaboration between the stakeholders involved. “These data-driven decisions can only be effective if we are able to bring different parties together to quickly generate advice that is individually tailored to our farmers, including the necessary guarantees for data ownership and protection. Our collaboration with VITO is a great first step in that direction,” concludes Uyttenhove.