Sugar beet seed company SESVanderHave is breaking into remote sensing through a strategic collaboration with VITO. By monitoring its trial fields for crop breeding with drones and analysing the data obtained via the MapEO platform, the company's ‘phenotyping’ is now better and more efficient. For the multi-national, headquartered in Tienen, this will not only strengthen their position in a highly competitive market, but will also help to make European agriculture more sustainable.

An efficient phenotyping method is indispensable for raising the yields of agricultural crops. After all, this allows for optimum assessment of experimental crop varieties or treatment methods, which are then selected on the basis of their outward characteristics. This traditionally takes place by hand, which unfortunately is time-intensive and gives only a fragmented and often subjective picture. There is an alternative to this method which is based on drones. This technology is faster and allows for complete, clear and objective phenotyping.

End-to-end solution

In its service provision to agricultural firms through its remote sensing applications, VITO is also concentrating on the seed breeding and crop protection sectors. This includes the use of drones. They can scan entire lots in a short time, after which the images are sent to VITO for processing. This last part takes place via the MapEO platform, an end-to-end solution from VITO for analyses of agricultural lots based on drone imagery. ‘Ultimately, this platform outputs the data the customer is interested in – for example, crop height, growth speed, leaf surface, blossom density, number of fruits per plant or symptoms of disease,’ says Jürgen Decloedt from VITO. ‘This allows seed breeders and crop protection firms to use drones to speed up their cultivation and selection programmes.’

The MapEO platform has been operational since spring 2018 and is now being used around the world. ‘We process data from customers and trial fields in Belgium and abroad, from other European countries through North and South America and South Africa to Japan,’ says Decloedt. In the commercial collaboration, VITO is responsible for the data processing. The drone flights are carried out by the customers themselves – or outsourced to freelance drone pilots through the VITO spin-off Sitemark (formerly DroneGrid), which connects the pilots to MapEO.

In the meantime, VITO has been steadily building up its expertise in terms of phenotyping via drone imagery, which also takes place in close collaboration with private partners. In the spring, VITO entered a new strategic collaboration with SESVanderHave, a globally operating sugar beet seed company headquartered in the ‘sugar city’ of Tienen.

Positive first impression

SESVanderHave and VITO were already working together before. Four years ago, they were both involved in a research project around disease resistance in sugar beets, whereby this was evaluated for different breeds using drones – this Beetphen project, as it was called, is now complete and was financed by Belspo. Following this positive first impression of remote sensing, SESVanderHave decided to start exploring and investigating the technology's potential and added value more actively. The company chose to embark on this again with VITO. ‘Our initial collaboration as part of the Beetphen project was very pleasant and constructive, and we soon felt that there was a potential for synergy,’ says Maarten Vanderstukken from SESVanderHave. ‘The close contact with the researchers from VITO and the ability to raise problems and new challenges quickly contributed to this.’

This initial collaboration has since borne its first fruit. ‘The first use cases with drones are presently finding their way to implementation further down the line in our operations,’ continues Vanderstukken. ‘The results show that we can evaluate a number of beet plant characteristics more accurately with drones than with the traditional, visual method. We can even truly quantify some crop characteristics for the first time now. That means that today we can already select beet breeds for these characteristics better and more efficiently.’

Competitive advantage

Nonetheless, these initial results will not lead to an immediate competitive advantage for SESVanderHave – something that is very welcome in the highly competitive market in which the firm from Tienen is active, considering the competition from cane sugar producers from low-wage countries. Vanderstukken: ‘The average development time for a new breed is ten years, while our breeds only stay on the market for four years on average.’ While the initial successes of the use of drones are impressive, there are plenty more larger and more impactful applications in the pipeline. ‘This is about a lot more than a few separate initiatives. We've only just broken into remote sensing, and we're aiming to do this in close collaboration with VITO.’ Ultimately, it is this collaboration that should deliver a true long-term competitive advantage for the world's second-largest producer of sugar beet seeds, with a market share of 30 percent.

Alongside this, SESVanderHave will also begin building up its own expertise in the analysis and interpretation of the data generated by the drones – so this can be combined with genetic or climate data too, for example. As regards to the climate, SESVanderHave also has several decent advantages in helping to make European agriculture more sustainable. Sugar beets are more resistant to drought than sugar cane, for example. ‘We have to respond to many external factors in our market,’ says Vanderstukken. ‘These could be European restrictions in terms of plant protection agents, or a rising demand for climate-proof varieties. These factors mean we need to put even greater effort into innovation.’ On that score, things are already going well at SESVanderHave: the company is investing no less than a fifth of its turnover into R&D, and one in four of its over 650 staff work at the R&D department.

The strategic collaboration has also come about because the development and implementation of drone and sensor technology is still fully developing. ‘We can stay ahead of the curve in this respect through VITO, while being assured that remote sensing is being used efficiently here,’ says Vanderstukken. In turn, VITO can benefit from the data supplied by SESVanderHave for optimising its automatic phenotyping. Decloedt: ‘This way, we can develop methodologies together that we can then start applying in MapEO.’

These Flemish companies are also using MapEO:

Globachem specialises in the development, registration and marketing of high-quality crop protection products for agriculture and gardening. The family business, based in Sint-Truiden and internationally active, began as a manufacturer of generics, but has been putting intensive efforts into its own innovative products in the past few years. Since early 2020, VITO has been processing the data from drone flights above 25 of the company's trial fields spread across the whole of Europe.

Aphea.Bio is a R&D company that develops natural, microbial products to raise crop yields and better protect them against disease. Products are used as coatings around seeds or as sprayable solutions. The coatings ensure that the seeds germinate better and the young plants grow more quickly. Spray solutions on leaves or spikes can better protect grain crops against fungous diseases. VITO processes the drone data from trial fields in Belgium, Germany and France.

Arvesta (formerly Aveve) tests and validates new breeds based on specific criteria. The Belgian company mainly does this for grain crops. VITO processes the data from drone flights above an Arvesta trial field in Tienen, looking at the crop height, the sensitivity to flattening (where the grain falls over) and the number of spikes per square metre, among other things.  

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