Sensors should help farmers save up to $6 billion a year

Agtech sensor

May 19, 2023

Nitrate sensors for application in agriculture are being developed to help raise crop yields by reducing nitrogen loss from plants. The novelty under development will allow measuring the nitrogen levels of crops in just 3 seconds. According to the EnGeniousAg company responsible for the innovation, farmers around the world spend billions of dollars on nitrogen-based fertilisers each year.

“EnGeniousAg’s sensors estimate optimal fertiliser application rates from soil nitrate tests. Soil chemical variation, crop genetics and other factors make it difficult to figure out how much nitrate plants can use,” explains James Schnable, co-founder of EnGeniousAg and professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska. According to the executive, correctly identifying nitrate levels in crops could help save farmers up to $6 billion a year without reducing crop yields.

Nitrogen fertilisers are among the most expensive inputs for agricultural production. Using them in excess or unnecessarily, besides being wasteful, is a harmful agent for air and water quality and for the environment in general.

EnGeniousAg recently received $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help catalyze the development of these sensors. The amount raised will enable field testing on large-scale crops using variable fertilizer application rates to validate and improve the company’s predictive model and translate the volume of nitrate present in the cornfield into fertilizer application recommendations. The NSF funding will also enable EnGeniousAg to partner with Premier Crop Systems and Soil View, two precision agriculture companies based in Iowa, US, to conduct field trials at more locations with different levels of nitrogen fertilizer application.

EnGeniousAg’s intellectual property portfolio includes several patent applications covering different aspects of sensor technology.

Precision farming

The precision agriculture market is expected to exceed US$16 billion by 2028, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.80% between 2022 and 2028, according to SkyQuest. The key drivers of this growth is the wider adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and other labour-associated technologies. The agricultural sector is also at the forefront of technological transformation, particularly regarding the use of drones, satellite imagery, data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In the specific case of AI, the technology is helping to improve crop quality and speed up the time it takes for commodities to reach the market. The AI in agriculture market is expected to be worth US$8.3 million by 2030, according to P&S Intelligence.

Also in the precision agriculture area, AI is going hand in hand with IoT devices, for example, for irrigation control, field mapping, among other purposes. IoT is becoming more popular in the agricultural sector due to its many advantages, such as the ability to collect and manage large volumes of structured and unstructured data. In addition, IoT sensors give farmers accurate information about soil nutrition, crop productivity, insect infestation, among other indicators that help improve farming practices and raise product quality.

Another trend that can be seen in precision farming is the use of robots. This is a market that is expected to reach US$83.6 million by 2030; in 2022, it was valued at US$8.2 million in 2022, according to Data Bridge Market Research, which represents a compound annual growth rate of 33.7% over the forecast period 2023 to 2030. This growth is being driven largely by increased awareness among farmers of the benefits of smart farming, i.e. the use of technologies such as robots, sensors and location-based systems on farms.

One segment that is expected to drive growth in the agricultural robot market is milking. The use of robots in this activity has helped to reduce labour costs and increase milk production. The milking procedure with the help of robots typically takes about 7 minutes, helping farmers save time and focus on the overall health of their herds. This is contributing to the growing global milking robot market, which was valued at US$1.7 million in 2021 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15.3%, generating revenues of US$6.9 million by 2031. Europe held the largest share in this market in 2021 due to the presence of major players in the region, the demand for better working and animal conditions, and the need to increase milk production.

The general market for agricultural robots is also getting on board with technology-as-a-service. Verdant Robotics has already embraced the robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model with a view to broadening farmers’ access to more robotic solutions that help them to have more profitable and sustainable practices.