Smarter Farms for Thailand

January 14, 2015 Technology is finding its way onto farms around the world. And thanks to the efforts of Dr. Teerakiat Kerdchaoen and his team at Mahidol University as part of their Smart Farm Thailand project, this technology is poised to find its way onto Thailand's farms too.

We spoke to Dr. Teerakiat before Spring News interviewed him regarding his agricultural drones, to learn more about his work. His team has developed a suite of sensors for everything from agriculture to attire, as well as air quality and water quality.  What was of particular interest was of course the quadcopter drone and the rover his team developed.

On the left is an autonomous rover, on the right, a quadcopter fitted with sensors.

Both serve as programmable, autonomous platforms that can be used for a variety of sensors. When we visited, they were fitted with the "electronic nose," a sensor that specializes in sensing molecules much in the same way the human nose does, but on a much more efficient level. The use of such sensors across a large area, such as a farm's fields and measuring the differences between regions of those fields may offer clues as to what nutrients are present and how plants are using them as they grow.

Data processed by computer software helps make sense of all this information, giving technicians the ability to tell farmers what they can do to address problems, or, if everything is going well, what they should keep doing.

The weather station.
Dr. Teerakiat also talked about multispectral, hyperspectral, thermal, and LIDAR imaging systems. Each offers a unique look at fields from a done's eye view that the human eye simply cannot see. Changes in plant health can be noticed long before color changes in leaves are detectable by the human eye. Since the drones can see entire fields at one time, farmers can devise a total strategy, more effectively and much sooner than if they depended on traditional methods and experience.

The fact that the data drones collect goes into a database means it can be compared with the health and conditions of other fields the drones fly over. Finding patterns across a certain area, and from year to year, may change agricultural practices entirely to correct inefficiencies previously unnoticed.

Another system Dr. Teerakiat's team has developed is an automated weather station. It relays information to a larger network comprised of other, similar stations giving users a more precise picture of the current weather and more information about predicted weather events. Knowing ahead of time that rain is or isn't coming, and what kind of rain it will be, can allow farmer's to take preventive measures that may save crops that might otherwise be destroyed.

Dr. Teerakiat used the example of a vineyard his team had deployed their systems in, explaining that when farmers knew a long, soft rain was coming, they spread fungicide ahead of time. The rain lasted several days. Had the farmers not taken these measures, fungus could have taken root, causing damage to the fields, thus having a negative impact on that year's harvest.


Some of the challenges Dr. Teerakiat faces is making the technology more accessible to both researchers and to end users. Many of the sensors used, especially for imaging, may cost more than the drones carrying them. Developing cheaper, more compact sensors is a recent goal Dr. Teerakiat's team has begun to pursue.

A look at smart farm technology from around the world: automated sensors, drones, and improved processing equipment.

 Another way to make these systems more accessible is by developing software applications that make their use more intuitive so users can focus on the data and what it means rather than simply operating the system.

There is also the problem of disseminating these systems once they are developed.  

Collaboration Can Overcome Challenges 

To overcome these challenges, Dr. Teerakiat also discussed the growing maker community in Thailand and how makers could contribute to progress that would benefit farmers and small businesses built up around employing these systems.

Much of the software and hardware Dr. Teerakiat's team is currently working with is open source. Microcontrollers like the Arduino, is a common tool used in makerspaces around the world, including in Thailand.

Makers tinkering with and improving the many subsystems institutions are using in research could help make sensors cheaper and smaller. Makerspaces producing these cheaper sensors may find yet another innovative source of income, while helping advance high-tech agriculture at the same time.

Across many of Thailand's makerspaces and maker community are many application developers. Always looking for freelance work, they may be able to help teams like Dr. Teerakiat's in ways and for competitive rates larger developer firms could not.

Finally, all of this precision agriculture reminds us of Dr. Prateep Verapattananirund and his soil clinics. These are centers that are being created around Thailand to help test soil to tell farmers how much nutrients are present and what ratio and amount of fertilizer to use. This is to prevent farmers from simply dumping as much fertilizer as possible, hoping for the best results. Conserving fertlizer means plants get only exactly what they need, saving farmers money and resulting in healthier crops.

The soil clinic network Dr. Prateep is trying to establish would be the perfect candidate to also adopt many of the systems Dr. Teerakiat is working on. A "precision agriculture service center" may just end up being in every district in Thailand, offering soil and water testing, fertilizer recommendations, imaging services, and even weather monitoring.

Together, these technologies offer to make Thailand's farms "smarter," and as a result, we hope, healthier for the end users (those eating the produce),, and more prosperous and enjoyable for the farmers creating that produce.

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