Towards digitization of european Agri-Food

This experiment aims to promote precision practices in viticulture (Credits: SmartAgriHubs).

“Connecting the dots” is the objective of SmartAgriHubs, an important european project. Coordinated by the Wageningen University Research, it is attended by 108 partners on all the european territory, including Italy.

by Maria Luisa Doldi

The aim of the project is, precisely, “to connect the dots” – that is the actors, the digital innovation hubs or digital innovation poles– of the European agri-food sector to favor, to coordinate, to make the digitization process more effective and more efficient, in this specific sector, from the production of the agricultural product to its processing, distribution and consumption. This is a very ambitious goal, separated from the research and development objectives of most projects, and which aims to solve a problem prior to technological innovation, that is to create flows of knowledge to increase awareness of the importance of a process of digitization of the agri-food sector, creating confidence in it to prepare the way to a faster introduction of technological innovations. But let’s start from the beginning. As explained by the engineer Daniele Sangiorgi, ART-ER Referent in the Industry 4.0 sector and contact person for SmartAgriHubs, the Project was born from the results of several studies (eg EIP-AGRI report of October 2017) according to which the agri-food sector is one of the least digitized in the European economy. «There are many reasons – explains Sangiorgi –. Certainly, the fragmentation in the legislation of the different Member States, doesn’t facilitate the adoption of a standardized approach. So, the sector itself does not have digitization in its DNA and history. And this creates a certain resistance to the adoption of digital technologies. Today the use of fully digital technologies in a company, in this sector, represents more the exception rather than the rule».  We must also add that, in particular for Italy,  and especially at the beginning of the value chain, made up of many medium or small companies where human capital is totally occupied in the core business of production, the structure of the sector does not help the dissemination of these technologies. But it is not just a sector problem. The research to develop digital technologies for agri-food and their implementation in companies has been carried out until now in a very fragmentary way: «There are many initiatives in the area that aim to introduce digital tools in agri-food, but there is no collaboration and we mostly reason on individual projects. The range of R&D efforts is very disorganized, and this means waste of energy, knowledge and more difficult affirmation on the market» says Sangiorgi.

The Plus value of SmartAgriHubs
Create connections and relate the needs of the sector with work skills and knowledge exchange between centers that have competences for the same supply chain: this is undoubtedly one of the main merits of this project which is very wide and challenging from an organizational point of view. The value of the network to be created is amplified by the European, not only national, scope of the network of relationships and knowledge. Moreover, it will allow us to provide useful system indications. As Bertoldi explains: «Computer systems often fail to communicate with each other, and this creates an isolation of companies rather than a sharing. With this project we want to give indications to overcome these technological limitations, making the systems compatible with each other and able to dialogue, along their entire food chain. Only in this way will it be possible to create surplus value, to create a value chain that will represent strategic added value for companies». Last but not least, this project aims to put an end to the fragmentation of projects and applications that sometimes occurs and create the scenario for a general orchestration, to better and more effectively affirm the digitization of the European agri-food sector.

Digitizing is essential

And yet, agri-food is certainly a sector that could greatly benefit from digitization. Digital technologies could represent, for example, a means for better and certain food traceability, for product safety but also for certifying its origin; support in the fight against food fraud which, according to Censis data, in 2015 for example, has cost the sector over € 1 billion; the affirmation of technologies for greater sustainability in the field and in the company; an aid to improve and lighten the work of the operators. There is no doubt about the importance of introducing a higher level of digitization even in this sector. These are the tools and methods that have to be perfected and this is precisely what SmartAgriHubs is aiming for.

Create awareness and knowledge

The objective of SmartAgriHubs is to create a structure, a European network of so-called Digital Innovation Hubs that can accompany the sector towards complete digitization. «The Digital Innovation Hubs are support organizations that aim to make companies more competitive, accelerating the development and spread of digital innovations. These act as an interface between research and companies and facilitate the application of results to the real life of the companies» says Sangiorgi. Structurally, the DIH are relationship orchestrators that have working relations with many different actors to form a one-stop shop where companies, especially SMEs, startups and mid-cap companies can access technological tests, financial advice, market information and networking opportunities. «In the context of the digitization of an agricultural company, it is not a question of proposing or buying a product, but a service, a solution that is far from the core business of the company and that, ideally, will accompany the business life for a certain number of years. It is therefore absolutely necessary to accompany the enterprise towards the understanding and the acceptance of this solution and this must be done through a lot of communication, networking and dissemination of knowledge». Furthermore, as Enzo Bertoldi, ART-ER Referent of the agri-food sector remarks: «to encourage a greater affirmation of digitization in this sector, it is first of all necessary to demonstrate to the agri-food companies the added value of data collection and its use for corporate life. It is fundamental to demonstrate to companies that digital can be used for strategic corporate functions and that it is not just a mere collection of data for its own sake. It is necessary to make a great effort of demonstration and communication work and that’s what the DIH have to take care of».

Aquaculture 4.0
In this experiment ICT and IoT technologies are used in aquaculture. The aim of the project is to have a network of sensors controlled remotely, via smartphone or tablet, able to provide information in real time on some chemical-physical parameters considered as critical for production in aquaculture (salinity, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, nitrates, etc.) and that, in case of criticality, also allow the execution of simple operations to restore safety conditions (such as, for example the remote opening or closing of locks and valves, activation of oxygenation systems etc.). The device is designed to work in productively relevant environments where the presence of electricity is not guaranteed or that are not covered by wi-fi signal. This will allow aquaculture operators to have real time access, via a dedicated app, to the information relevant to production management and will be equipped with an alert system that will be activated if the monitored parameters exceed the reference threshold values. ICT solutions of this kind, from a more general point of view, allow to mitigate the environmental impact on coastal ecosystems, reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. The information collected by the system of sensors will allow not only to improve the well-being of the reared species, allowing to monitor and possibly correct the fundamental parameters for animal life, but also to record extended time series on the climatic conditions of the production environment, given that the information recorded by the sensors will be stored in dedicated clouds. The coordinator of this experiment is the University of Ferrara.

Innovation experiment in aquaculture 4.0. The purpose of the project is to have a network of remotely controlled sensors able to provide information in real time on some chemical-physical parameters
(Credits: SmartAgriHubs).

Putting order

«The first step we took – as national project referents together with Coldiretti – was to survey existing DIHs in the area, characterized by competences related to the agri-food sector. In Italy we have identified 24, very different from each other: from DIHs already recognized at European level to regional/national Clusters focused on agri-food, up to specific public-private partnership for innovation. The services offered are varied, from support to the creation of partnership, to project development, to the definition of business models and scale-up projects» explains Sangiorgi.

Two experimental projects

In the context of SmartAgriHubs 28 innovation experiments are also carried out with the direct involvement of the DIHs and the competence centers connected to them in order to test advanced technological solutions in the field, with a strong push on the possibilities of reusing the tested technologies in other contexts. In Italy two of these innovation experiments are active, briefly described below.

Precision viticulture

This experiment aims to promote precision practices in viticulture by creating a system easy to use, but based on advanced technologies, for the optimization of the most common agronomic practices, such as irrigation, fertilization and pruning. The final product can be adopted not only large wine-growing areas but also by small farmers. The system is based on a new sensor able to combine vigor measurements with the study of thermography, a necessary parameter for the knowledge of the vineyard water status. The instrument is designed so that it can be installed directly on the tractor and acquire data in proximal sensing at very high spatial resolution during the routine vineyard management operations. The results are then presented immediately via an app. The producer, therefore, will have the possibility of having available data throughout the course of the season without having to resort to external services (eg satellite data). Coordinator of this experiment is the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Piacenza.

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