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Robots, data sow seeds of Asia's future

Agritech addressing challenges across development spectrum

Agribuddy’s mobile platform helps farmers in emerging countries to maximize earnings.

TOKYO -- Weak or strong, old-hand or complete novice, Asian farmers have a hard time. But the use of robotics and data analytics is addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing agriculture in the region -- from ageing Japan's labor shortage to data-sparse emerging economies in Southeast Asia.

This week's Agritech Summit in Tokyo, a three-day startup event organized by Nikkei Inc., saw some of the burgeoning sector's most prominent figures share their insights.

Vehicle robotics expert Noboru Noguchi from Hokkaido University showcased a self-driving, satellite-navigated tractor. His team's aim is to fully automate tasks like planting rice, spreading pesticides and harvesting, all while keeping the vehicle's movements to "within a margin of error of 5 cm," he said.

With Japan's farming population disappearing, the use of robotics is more important than ever, Noguchi stressed. The country's agricultural workforce fell 8% on the year to 1.92 million last year -- sliding below 2 million for the first time. The number is half of what it was two decades ago. Moreover, the average age in the agricultural sector is 67.

"To realize strong Japanese farming, we need automation technology that can work on people's behalf," Noguchi said at a panel discussion on Wednesday. Having successfully trialed the vehicle, the team plans to put it on the market next year.

Interest in Noguchi's technology, which has received support from the Japanese government, has come from Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan. Tokyo aims to roll out autonomous farming machines by 2020.

The problem of an ageing workforce is compounded by a lack of youngsters willing to go into farming.

Boston-based Soft Robotics is ready to offer a hand. The startup is developing a robot arm with a soft claw that mimics the grip of an octopus. By controlling air pressure within the claw, the device can handle delicate products like tomatoes and eggs without damaging them.

Robots that can completely replace farmers, however, are a long way off. Harvesting is one of the biggest challenges in automated farming, especially for small produce.

Given two tomatoes growing next to each other on a vine, the human eye can easily differentiate the two in order to pick them one by one. For a computer, on the other hand, it is an extremely difficult task.

Soft Robotics thus developed a vision system where a farmer can simply help the robot if it cannot figure out what it is looking at through a touch screen.

"One of the best things that humans do is recognizing the visual characteristics in very complex environments," said Dan Harburg, the company's director of business development. "If we have that human insight, we can have robots perform redundant and backbreaking tasks."

Soft Robotics’ arm can handle delicate work like picking tomatoes without hurting them.

Helping with data

The benefits of agritech are not limited to countries with highly developed agricultural sectors. 

Labor is abundant in emerging countries, but farmers face an altogether different challenge in the lack of access to financial services. Unable to get credit, they are vulnerable to loan sharks, while a lack of expertise and insufficient data is hinders yields.

Japanese startup Agribuddy, based in Siem-Reap, Cambodia, seeks to create a network connecting rural farmers in emerging economies with local middlemen, suppliers and markets that is easy to use for people with little formal education.

Using the company's smartphone app, agents gather data like the total land area, crop type, and planting schedules. Farmers can then plant the crop at the best time dependent on the market. By simply sharing photos of their crops, they can also seek expert advice.

Startups and businesses showcased their latest technology and products at the Agritech Summit in Tokyo.

"Small-scale farmers rely solely on intuition and experience," Kitaura said at a workshop on Tuesday. He also cited low literacy levels as one of the main challenges. "If you ask for past record, they would go 'Data? What data?' Buyers there do not even keep track of the crop price from the previous year."

By tracking a farmer's income and expense pattern, the platform creates a credit report, from which banks can assess the risks and provide credit at the most appropriate time. Farmers can use the credit to buy necessary items like fertilizers and machinery from Agribuddy.

Agribuddy has close to 20,000 farmers registered in Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand and India. "You can say that we're almost like a virtual farm co-op. We hope to make the industry more transparent," Kitaura said.

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