NEC eyes AI technology to help wheat production

Courtesy of NEC Corp.
A sensor to collect data from the soil is seen on a plot of land where wheat is grown.

NEC Corp. has embarked on the development of artificial intelligence technology that will support large-scale farming operations in Japan and overseas.

In June, the company started an experiment on wheat production, analyzing data collected from satellite images, soil sensors and agricultural machinery. It aims to use AI analysis to boost wheat output volume by improving on ways to apply fertilizer and judging the best timing for harvest.

The AI technology is also intended to make it easier for people to enter into agricultural business, which will ease a labor shortage due to the aging of farmers, while ensuring a stable supply of agricultural products.

NEC is carrying out the experiment at an about 170-hectare farm in Memuro, Hokkaido, jointly with MSK Farm Machinery Corp., which imports and sells agricultural equipment.

Sensors are used to collect a vast volume of data, such as the water content in the soil and daylight hours. Based on the data, the AI technology determines the best time and amount of fertilizer to be spread.

In the experiment, images from a satellite and a drone are also used to identify plots where the growth of crops is lagging. By spreading additional fertilizer in such plots, farmers can increase their yield.

Wheat is often grown on large areas of farmland, so the growing conditions vary from plot to plot, making it necessary to apply subtle and precise adjustments to how much fertilizer is used and when to harvest.

So far, such matters have been largely decided by the “experience and intuition” of farmers, but the use of the AI technology would enable even inexperienced farmers to handle these matters.

The experiment will continue for two years. If the effectiveness of the AI technology is confirmed, NEC intends to start making the technology commercially available in 2023 or later.

The annual fee for using this AI service package, which will include sensors and other equipment and expertise on how to use the AI technology, is expected to be several thousand yen per hectare of farmland.

NEC also plans to promote this service in the United States, Australia and other agricultural countries, which have vast cultivated fields and are likely to receive great benefit from the AI technology.

Hopes are also high that this technology will help overcome Japan’s problems stemming from the aging of farmers and lack of successors.

“We want to support new farmers, companies and other entities trying to enter the agricultural industry,” said an NEC employee in charge.

Advanced tech for food security

Amid concerns about food shortages due to global population growth, the government has placed a focus on improving the efficiency and competitiveness of the nation’s agriculture from a security point of view.

One of the measures to achieve this end is so-called smart agriculture, which uses advanced technologies such as robots, AI and the Internet of Things, in which everything is connected to the internet.

According to statistics from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, as of Feb. 1 this year, the number of full-time farmers was about 1.3 million, of whom about 70% were 65 or older. This figure is three-fourths the figure in 2012, when there were about 1.78 million full-time farmers.

The Annual Report on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas, which the government released in May, stresses the need to “build a sustainable production system through innovation” using information technology and other means in order to cope with the aging and decreasing number of farmers.