Find out how NGA developed a smart agriculture solution

The NGA Smart Agriculture Solution uses artificial intelligence to unlock the full potential of your crop while also protecting the planet.

Food insecurity and low-nutrition crops is a Big Data problem, but first, you need to think vertically about it. Also, it’s pronounced daytuh. And about the vertical thinking: that means literally stacking crops on top of each other to save horizon space for humans to live or enjoy. Let’s unpack this revolutionary idea. It begins with hydroponics. You grow the crops in a closed system that recirculates water and a precisely controlled mix of micronutrients. The result is a modular, fully optimized growing environment that yields crops of exceptionally high quality and that can scale as high as your budget will allow. And that’s where big data comes in.

NGA International is constantly looking to find new and creative ways to apply data-driven solutions for clients who don’t necessarily realize the opportunities available to them because data science isn’t as accessible as it should be. Agriculture has already been touched by data science through satellite and drone-based imaging solutions, but those are expensive and don’t offer a meaningful evolution of farming practices. Under the stewardship of long-time CEO Mark Germishuys, NGA took a holistic view of agriculture and identified the benefits of hydroponics as a solid foundation to build a comprehensive future-facing solution. That solution includes vertical farming. Large vertical farms can be overwhelming because each plant needs to be monitored individually. Humans don’t do well processing that much data at once, but artificial intelligence does. With an integrated network of sensors, every measurement becomes a data point and machine learning can help farmers replicate the best growing conditions down to the micron level Agronomist Al was developed to help augment human intuition with machine precision and when the data is fed through an app interface, growers get remote monitoring to have full control of the quality of the produce from the palm of their hand. Where checking plant health used to be a process of examining each plant individually by inspecting the leaves, automatic image analysis leverages the power of computer vision, Al, and machine learning. These cameras can see the plant and identify problems proactively because the system can also see the nutrient content in the water through another set of sensors.

Machine learning algorithms can also chart the growth rate of each plant and optimize the nutrient mix in real-time to meet the plant’s needs in response to ambient temperatures. But all that is only part of the growing story. What’s the use in producing the best possible produce when science shows that most produce loses as much as 30 percent of its nutrients three days after harvest? Because vertical
tunnels can be built in urban environments. Old buildings or even existing buildings are actually acres of unused farmland. You can grow on the roof of the store that you sell from or in the building next door. Reducing the distribution time increases the nutritional value by getting it from farm to plate in a short turnaround time. There’s also much less water waste through evaporation irrigating the soil between plants. When growing 5 000kg of lettuce in three different environments – conventional, standard hydroponics, and Agronomist Al monitored hydroponics – on average the conventional growing method used 25 times more water per kilogram of produce. The crop yield for hydroponics was also much higher and of more consistently high quality than conventional methods and with no discernible differences in nutrient concentration. Further studies using basil over a 12-month period allowed optimization to maintain a consistent crop yield regardless of the season by adjusting the nutrient dosing to respond to the ambient environment. Adding climate control to the vertical tunnels removes the seasonal fluctuations.

The NGA Smart Agriculture Solution combines Agronomist Al with the optimized vertical tunnel infrastructure design to create a unified system that works from the moment you turn it on. The full suite of sensors provides constant insight into the health of the crop in real-time with GPS-linked event capture to precisely locate any problems. Machine learning is encouraged through a regularly updated knowledge database that is informed by subject matter experts, accurate weather reporting, and disease and pest information updates. The neural network can then disseminate and gather data that is relevant to the location of your crop. What you get is a system that grows and learns alongside the crop to create a complete picture of your unique environment for a truly tailored solution. It’s a system that can almost predict the future and offers an early warning on any possible disease or pest outbreaks. Harnessing a broad spectrum of the Internet of Things (IOT) allows users to be alerted if there is any disruption to the power or water supply. NGA is a complete solution that uses the latest best practices to increase the quality of agriculture and reduce the impact of farming on the earth.

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To help farmers tackle these challenges, technology creators’ main objective is to formulate solutions that can be integrated into traditional farming equipment and processes while maximizing their efficiency. Conscious of the fact that fresh produce loses 30% of nutrients three days after harvest, Centurion-based NGA Data Science Experts devised a solution to help foster farming practices in urban areas. This helps speed up the process of getting the harvest to the shelves quicker while preserving nutrients. Farming closer to residential and retail spaces means the fresh produce can reach the market within 24 hours of harvest. “The offering is an end-to-end solution, using IoT and AI to monitor the tunnel operations, which enables us to action any issues identified remotely or automatically,” says Mark Germishuys, NGA’s CEO. “The solution is used to determine the optimal frequency, the concentration of nutrient solutions, as well as environmental controls on ambient conditions such as temperature and light.” BMEC Technologies is a Cape Town-based multi-spectrum engineering consulting entity founded by Heidi Wilson and Raphael Smith. The company is equally enthusiastic about integrating IoT into traditional farming equipment for a dual outcome of speeding up and simplifying their daily routines.

“We take a piece of agricultural equipment and work with our clients to establish how this equipment could become advanced and competitive through remote monitoring and/ or remote control,” says Wilson. “We then build the full stack of electronics, software, mobile applications, servers, and web applications to enable the solution.”

The cost factor plays a major role in deciding to adopt new technological solutions in the agricultural sector. The traditional resources are usually tagged with a hefty price. Another obstacle is the misconception that the latest technology is expensive and misaligned in function. Smith has identified the agricultural sector as the toughest market to break into as a technology company. He indicates that the challenges range from the misinformation around the practicality of the proposed solutions, and how these (solutions) complement the working conditions that are encountered by farming practitioners on a daily basis. “We’ve spent years building solutions that thrive in the harshest conditions, including corrosive chemicals, high (and low) temperatures, continuous vibrations, and areas characterized by poor access to telecommunication networks,” says Smith. “We decided to customize our offering to build a low-cost IoT solution and a user interface that is simple and accessible. That allows our clients to jump straight into the world of IoT without destabilizing their existing equipment once it’s integrated.”

NGA’s offering of solutions targeting urban farming using plantation tunnels is game-changing in how it mitigates environmental obstacles attributed to land-based farming. What sets this solution apart? “The nutrient solution and water being fed to the plants is not exposed to sunlight and minimizes loss through evaporation, reducing water consumption and quantities of nutrients that need to be added to the system,” says Germishuys. “Speed of plant growth is increased, and earlier detection of plant diseases helps prevent wastage.”

Bi-directional bridge

NGA’s solution is still in its developmental phase and was instrumental in producing 15 000 units of lettuce and basil in tunnels equal to a tennis court. According to Germishuys, the solution is an in-house R&D project. “We grew basil for 12 continuous months in 2019, which is a season-green, without any growth problems. We are able to grow certain greens out of season without any issues,” he says. NGA is currently in advanced talks to launch the solution globally.

Wilson and Smith believe that BMEC’s solution has succeeded in removing the preexisting misconceptions about the role of modern technology in farming. “We continue to work with our clients to expand our offering, develop their intellectual property and improve their competitiveness,” says Smith. “We’ve managed to create a bi-directional bridge between the real world of farming and the abstract world of software,” adds Wilson.

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