When the Kursk region-based agricultural enterprise Agrofirma Rylskaya noticed that the costs of their sugar beet production were constantly rising, with no corresponding increase in yield, they turned to an innovative tech startup. Roboprob, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster, used its robotised system to collect soil samples across the sugar beet plantation in question. Those samples were then analysed to determine what farming methods are best suited to that particular land, such as what kind of fertilizer to apply and when.

Igor Kozubenko, a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, told the Precision Farming conference that the government plans to quintuple the use of IT in agriculture by 2024. Photo: Sk.ru.

The partnership between Agrofirma Rylskaya and Roboprob was just one of six success stories presented at the Precision Farming conference held at the Skolkovo Technopark on Tuesday. Precision farming is often primarily associated with data obtained from unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites, but sometimes the farmer needs data on the quality and quantity of the soil and the nutrients in it, and that requires physical samples. It was for such cases that Roboprob designed its automated system, which saves on human labour costs.

“We try to bring a maximum economic effect that the producer will really feel,” said Vladimir Eliseev, director general of Roboprob, who presented the joint project together with a representative of Agrofirma Rylskaya as an example of practical ways of implementing precision farming techniques in Russia. 

The effective use of information technologies can reduce the costs of fertilizing, planting, materials, fuel and other expenses by a total of 23 percent, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

About a dozen Skolkovo agrotech companies demonstrated their products and solutions on the sidelines of the conference, which was taking place for the third year. As well as Roboprob, they included ExactFarming, an online service for managing agricultural enterprises. The system allows farmers to plan seasonal work, monitor work being carried out and the condition of crops, and prevent losses by taking into account weather forecasts and historical patterns, data from satellite monitoring, and information on pests and diseases.

Other startups presented precision farming technologies using drones and satellites, which are so crucial to this field of work that their use in it deserves the separate term of agronautics, said Ruslan Kamalov, head of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster, which two years ago established a subsection devoted to agrotech.

“In that time, Skolkovo has become one of the main expert platforms in the field of precision farming,” said Kamalov at the opening of the conference.

“A new era is certainly dawning: the era of digital farming. Digitalisation is not just coming to agriculture; it is the main vector of development in this sector,” he said, adding that the integration of technologies using artificial intelligence and systemization of big data meant that the next conference would probably be titled Digital Farming.

There is no doubt that in agriculture, required skills are moving from the field to the office, said Igor Kozubenko, head of the department of development and management of state information resources within the Agriculture Ministry: mechanized and manual labour is moving over to satellite monitoring, meaning fewer farm labourers are required, resulting in decreased costs. But there is vast room for improvement in this area, the agricultural ministry representative said.

Russia is currently in 15th place in terms of the digitalization of the economy, and the government wants to quintuple the use of IT in agriculture by 2024, said Kozubenko, noting that digital processes are currently only used in 8-10 percent of the sector.

Skolkovo resident startups demonstrate their agrotech solutions, including UAVs, on the sidelines of the event. Photo: Sk.ru.

Yet the effective use of information technologies can reduce the costs of fertilizing, planting, materials, fuel and other expenses by a total of 23 percent, he said.

“It currently costs 6,579.5 rubles ($116) to produce a ton of grain in Russia [one of the world’s biggest grain exporters]. IT solutions can reduce that to 5,066.2 rubles. That’s our competitive advantage [on the global market],” said Kozubenko.

Currently, however, Russia lags behind its international competitors in terms of spending on IT in agriculture and the availability of specialists in this field.

The average amount spent on IT in Russian agriculture is one ruble per hectare, said Kozubenko, adding that major producers here spend up to 15 rubles. That figure in Western countries is up to 50 rubles. “We’re spending 50 times less than our partners, and we have 10 times fewer IT specialists per 1,000 people than in the West and Europe,” he noted.

To close the gap, the Ministry of Agriculture aims to create new generations of specialists, and is accordingly setting up new departments at Russia’s 54 agricultural universities for students to specialise in the digitalization of agriculture, he told the conference.

“Mistakes hit agricultural producers in the wallet. Modern technology can tell us accurately how to overcome most problems: two thirds of operations in agriculture can be controlled using technology,” said Kozubenko.

“The only thing we can’t control or fully predict is weather, but we can at least understand how to deal with it,” he said.