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Robots vs Monsanto

Agricultural robots are the long-term future of the agrochemical business and the verdict Monsanto’s glyphosate responsible for causing cancer only serves to reinforce this argument, says DR KHASHA GHAFFARZADEH, Research Director at IDTechEx.

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Last week a US court held Monsanto’s glyphosate responsible for causing cancer in a ground keeper, awarding $289M of damages. This is a critical verdict in that it demonstrates that glyphosate – as one of the most popular non-selective herbicides worldwide- is on shaky ground. Indeed, for some time now, this agrochemical has managed only to just about retain its legal permits in the face of mounting concern over its toxicity. This verdict, even if subject to appeal, will have surely sounded the alarm bells in the board rooms of agrochemical companies worldwide.

You might wonder what the link between this verdict and agricultural robotics is? The answer is everything. In a previous articleauthored two years ago, I had argued that agricultural robots are the long-term future of the agrochemical business. This verdict only serves to reinforce this argument, demonstrating that agrochemical businesses need to urgently start reinventing themselves as being in the business of controlling weeds, and not just agrochemical supplies. Inevitably, robots, AI, and smart agricultural tools will come to form a major part of a weed control (not chemical) focused business.

To learn more see the IDTechEx Research report Agricultural Robots and Drones 2018-2038: Technologies, Markets and Players. This report analyses how robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture, enabling ultra-precision and/or autonomous farming and helping address key global challenges. It also develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will become the future of agrochemicals business and how it will modify the way we design agricultural machinery.

Precision agriculture has been around for decades. From its early days, this approach has sought to utilize imaging techniques to enable precision identification and thus precision action taking. However, at the time, the cost of data acquisition (via sensors and cameras) and processing was prohibitively high, both in time and money terms, to warrant any commercial implementation.

That has now all changed thanks to developments in other industries such as consumer electronics. Indeed, for several years now, companies have demonstrated robotics equipped with deep learning based advance vison technologies that can rapidly distinguish between crops and weeds and to rapidly take site specific action to eliminate the weed. One such example was Blue River Technologies which was acquired by John Deere in 2017 for $305M. Interestingly, Blue River Technologies counted amongst its investors some of the world’s largest agrochemical makers including Monsanto!

This approach is radically different from the glyphosate-based approach in which the non-selective herbicide kills everything apart from the genetically engineered seeds. This action is site- or even potentially plant- specific, requiring the use of customized weed control action which could be a precision sprayed selective speciality chemical. This technology also lays the foundation for doing more than just weed control, e.g., it can evolve to site specific fertilizer and nutrient deposition technique.

This technique is only set to improve. The algorithms will certainly get better with practise or more real data. The cost of data acquisition, management, and analysis will only further fall. And the fleets of unmanned small robots will increasingly become sufficiently productive to compete with large manned agricultural vehicles. All these technologies have significant upside potential whereas the existing technologies has long matured, making only small incremental gains.

So what will all of this mean for the agrochemical business? We believe that agrochemicals companies have no choice but to become intricately involved with robotics and AI. These two technologies will shape the future of their business. The advent of precision see-and-spray technologies will drastically impact on the volume and type of the chemicals employed, potentially transforming the business from one in which they sell bulk non-selective chemicals towards one in which they sell many specialized selective chemicals tailored to various plants. Furthermore, the value chain will become more digitized with data and intelligence capturing a more significant part of the overall value. This will inevitably enable new data-based farm management techniques in which agrochemicals are used differently than today.

This self-reinvention by agrochemical companies needs to start soon. It will not be as easy or an overnight transition. It requires that agrochemical companies build up new skillsets and establish new technologies and business models. It will also somewhat blur the boundaries between tool making and chemical suppliers as the two become intractably intertwined.

It might that incumbent companies become tempted to not act since today their current practise remains more productive and lower cost than emerging alternative technologies including robotic based solutions. But such companies forget the direction of technological travel at their own peril. Agricultural robotics will shape the long-term future of agrochemical business. This long-term future however may be upon us sooner if similar court cases put legal restrains on the current technology, raising its risk and costs, and if herbicide-resistant weeds continue their rapid march across areas in which such chemicals are heavily used.

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Queues and cash-only frustrate SA’s commuters

A new study by Visa reveals the success factors for improving travel and creating smarter cities

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The use of cash-only payments was a frustration for 38% of Johannesburg commuters and 37% of Cape Town-based commuters, according to a new global study by Visa. Another commuter frustration when paying for public transport has been long queues – 67% of Johannesburg commuters and 64% of Cape Town commuters.

Visa, in collaboration with Stanford University, came up with these findings in one of the largest global studies examining the growing demand for public and private transportation, and the important role digital commerce plays in driving sustainable growth.

According to the UN[i], by 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population will live in urban centres – and the number of “megacities” with populations greater than 10 million people will rise from 43 today to 51 within that same period. South Africa is no different, with the majority of the country relying heavily on the public transport system. In fact, according to the General Household Survey (GHS) for 2018, a total of 54 209 000 minibus/taxi trips take place in South African per month. 

Building on Visa’s experience working with transit operators, automotive companies and technology start-ups, Visa commissioned a global study, “The Future of Transportation: Mobility in the Age of the Megacity” to better understand the challenges commuters face today and in the future. The key findings were combined with a view of existing and near horizon innovations provided by experts at Stanford University, to better understand the technology gaps in addressing their pain points.

The South African Perspective

Payments lie at the heart of every form of travel, and will continue to become more integral as more cities move to contactless public transportation, digital payments for parking and rental services such as bikes or scooters.  Malijeng Ngqaleni, Deputy Director-General of the South African Inter-governmental Relations, states that a high as 60% of South African households spend on average of 20% of their monthly income on transport, while in rural areas this number can be as high as 31%.

Aside from cash-only payments, another commuter frustration when paying for public transport has been long queues – 67% of Johannesburg commuters and 64% of Cape Town commuters. Over the last few years, a number of mobile-driven taxi-hailing apps have been launched in the South African market to counteract these concerns and commuters are open to the possibilities presented by mobile apps. The Visa study echoed this by showing that 77% of Johannesburg commuters and 76% of Cape Town commuters would be willing to try a consolidated app to make payments for public transport.

 Mike Lemberger, SVP, Product Solutions Europe, Visa says: “The future success of our cities is intertwined with – and reliant on – the future of transportation and mobility. Visa and our partners have an important role to play, both in streamlining the payment experience for millions of commuters around the globe, and supporting public transportation authorities in their quest to build sustainable and convenient transportation solutions that improve the lives of the people who use it.”

Herman Donner, PhD and Postdoctoral Researcher from Stanford University co-authored the report and summarised: “When looking across the technology landscape, there already exist many products that could easily address people’s daily frustrations with travel.  However, none of these solutions should be developed in isolation. A major challenge therefore lies in first identifying relevant technologies that provide suitable products for the market then managing implementation in conjunction with  a broad set of stakeholder including  mobility providers, technology companies, infrastructure owners and public transport agencies.  From our research, we think that many of these small, incremental changes have the potential to make a significant difference in people’s daily travel,  whether it’s to help find parking, get the best price to refuel their car or plan their journey on public transportation.”

Click here for the detailed global findings.

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Women take to tech, but more needed

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By HAIDI NOSSAIR, Marketing Director META, Dell Technologies

$12 trillion – that is the value in additional global GDP that remains locked behind the gender gap. This is according to the latest Women Matter report from McKinsey, which also reveals startling disparities in the workplace. Even though women make up more than half of the human population, only 37% contribute to GDP on average – and in some countries that proportion is significantly lower.

The reasons for this can be put in three areas. Fewer women – 650 million fewer than men – participate in the global labour force. Women are also more likely to be in part-time employment and thus work fewer hours. Finally, female employees are more common in lower-productivity sectors than in higher-productivity areas.  Are women not being offered the opportunity or are they holding themselves back?

Among STEM careers this ratio is particularly dismal: only 24% of engineering professionals are women, and as few as 19% of careers in ICT are filled by women.

What is the cause of this? Studies have found that women pursuing STEM careers are higher in countries with more oppressive policies towards women, because those careers hold the promise for financial freedom and more social autonomy. In contrast, countries with progressive attitudes towards women tend to produce fewer female STEM graduates. Then how can we encourage women from early ages to take the path of STEM education?  And how can organizations ensure women have equal opportunity at the hiring stages.

Certainly addressing gender inequality is crucial and must not stop.. Where women are increasingly more part of the workforce, there are often still barriers preventing them from assuming higher management roles. Female entrepreneurs often struggle more to gain investment capital. Corporate cultures are rarely aligned with the pressures of balancing work and family obligations. Decision makers may simply lack exposure to the potential of female candidates. Female pioneers have also argued that women are too risk-averse when compared to men. 

Whether these assertions are true is a matter for debate – and that’s exactly why every professional man and woman should be talking about them and identify action to change the status-quo. This is not just about female rights, but about social upliftment: companies with a mixture of male and female leaders perform better across the board and companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to outperform on profitability.

The digital economy we live in today represent a golden opportunity for increased women contribution to the workforce as technology breaks the boundaries of location and time for the workplace and where labor intensive jobs may today be performed by data scientists. 

For two days in March, top professionals will gather to talk and exchange ideas around creating more roles for women, larger appreciation for female professionals, as well as counter the attitudes among women holding them back from greater career success and autonomy.

If you want to be part of this conversation, join the Women in Tech Africa summit today at the Century City Conference Centre in Cape Town – learn more at https://www.women-in-tech-africa-summit.com/ and use the code DELL20 for a 20% discount.

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