Ziv Katzir

From Startup Nation to AI Nation: The Farmer Knows Best

For thousands of years, agriculture was based on human expertise and gut feelings, but this simply isn't enough in the 21st century

Human driven agriculture has undergone major upheavals since people began to domesticate plants and animals to produce food, and the pace of changes has only increased with the technological development of the past decades. 

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the “green revolution” where the first understandings of the science behind genetics led to the invention of ways to design different species of plants that would be more resistant to diseases and the weather.

Each agricultural revolution increased mankind’s ability to produce increasingly more quantities of food for the earth’s population – a critical ability considering the constant population growth. Farmers find themselves repeatedly devoting their lives to finding ways to produce more food with less land, effort, and resources. The growing demand for food is accompanied by a decline in the land available to grow it. 

Professionals believe that we are in the early stages of a new agricultural revolution: precision agriculture. As part of precision agriculture, farmers are adopting today’s advanced technologies – Artificial Intelligence and machine learning – to contend with the growing need for food, with dwindling farming land, and with the challenges posed by climate changes. 

In response to the growing need for new solutions to existing problems, two new Israeli companies are seeking to harness these technologies in their endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of the reality in existing farming areas. 

A Sight to be Savored?

To appreciate the revolution offered by Israeli technologies, it is necessary to understand how traditional farming worked in terms of real-time monitoring of events in the field – from planting and sowing to picking and harvest.   

To understand the state of the land and the crops they grow, farmers have always been compelled to rely on their eyes and intuitions gained from frustrating years of contending with weather conditions, pests, diseases etc. In other words, to know what was happening in the field, they needed to go out to their fields, check the plants themselves, and make decisions based on prior knowledge, estimations, gut feelings and, naturally, guesses. 

If, for example, a farmer saw an infected crop, he had to identify the problem, estimate how many plants had been affected, and decide on a course of action – how to treat the problem, whether to spray pesticide on one plot or the entire field, or maybe even uproot the plants to prevent the disease spreading. Each insight and decision had far-reaching ramifications on both the farmer himself and on the people in need of his produce. 

According to various estimates, the world’s farmers lose between 30%-40% of their crop every growing season. The scope of these losses is estimated at approximately 500 billion dollars a year. It is this reality, whereby all the world’s agricultural produce is dependent on knowledge and possibly flawed human judgement that agri-tech companies seek to change while harnessing the most innovative technologies that mankind has to offer. 

Seeing Bugs from a UAV

The Israeli company Taranis is one of these companies. Gershom Kutliroff, the company’s CTO, explains that the company’s vision is to transform the entire agricultural industry into a field that is based on genuine data i.e., based on an accepted understanding about what is happening and not based on intuition. 

The advantages are clear: farmers who make use of the technology to analyze the state of their fields and crops will have greater capacity to decide on the correct course of action. This will result in smarter, more accurate and more economical treatment of the crops – healthier for both the crops and the environment.

Take for example the use of chemicals to treat pests discovered in a certain plot in the field. The smart farmer will know exactly which plants are affected and need treatment, thereby saving not only the costs of using the pesticides, but also reducing harm to the other plants, and causing less damage to the environment, and increasing output. 

Taranis was established in 2015 by Ofir Schlam, Eli Bukchin, Eyal Carmi and Assaf Horowitz. Kutliroff, who joined the company at a later stage, holds a doctorate in applied mathematics. He previously managed R&D teams in the field of computer vision and Artificial Intelligence and founded several companies. 

Taranis, which operates in precision agriculture, offers AI-based solutions that help identify diseases and pests in a farmer’s fields. The company has developed a platform that uses Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to analyze very high-resolution images of fields received from UAVs, satellites, and light aircrafts. The system’s algorithms are based on a unique bank of images compiled by the company. With over 200 million images, this bank is considered the largest in this area. 

The farmers who use Taranis’s systems receive critical, real-time insights on the state of their crops: from identification of plots that are not growing properly because they need fertilizing and pest control to early identification of pests and diseases that are about to attack the plants.   

Taranis, which recently raised over 100 million dollars, now employs 120 people in several countries. Its primary markets are the US and Brazil while the R&D is conducted in Israel. 

“Once the season starts, we fly UAVs above farmers’ fields, gather images, upload them to the cloud and our servers, and then run AI-based models to identify and analyze the state of the crops,” Kutliroff explains. 

Each field is photographed several times throughout the season. During the first flight, we photographed the number of plants beginning to grow to assess the need for re-sowing problematic areas in the field. Other tasks include searching for weeds, identifying the type of weed and enabling the farmer to only spray the affected areas with the right substances. 

Subsequent flights search for more advanced threats in the field, including symptoms of diseases, a lack of potassium and nitrogen that can be identified by the color of the leaves or signs that something is unhealthy. All these flights are aimed at giving the farmer an in-depth understanding of what is happening in his field so that he can maintain it properly, thereby increasing the size of the harvest. 

As part of its strategy, Taranis offers farmers a complete service as the company employs all the necessary pilots and drones. “In spring, for example,” Kutliroff explains, “there are more than 240 drones and 200 pilots. The company invests significant effort and capital in developing tools that enable maintenance of such a complex operation. Among other things, we have developed a special program to fly a UAV and ensure the high quality of the images etc. Each sophisticated UAV costs 30 thousand dollars but this enables us to supply the kind of service level and quality we expect.”

The images produced by the company are high-zoom and very high resolution – approximately 20 megapixels, with each pixel covering a third of a millimeter. “We can even see bugs on the plant!” Kutliroff says. 

Artificial Intelligence is employed when analyzing the images. As Kutliroff explains: “In the beginning, we used to send the images from the UAVs to human labelers in India and other locations. In theory, we could have continued doing this, but it wasn’t economical. It takes a long time and is very expensive, especially considering that during the 4 months of the season, we expect to receive between 7-8 million images.”  

Furthermore, it is difficult to control the quality of the images’ precision when working with human labelers. The world of agriculture demands high-level expertise and only experienced agronomists can look at an image and identify a specific disease. For a normal unskilled person, this would be almost impossible. In contrast, Artificial Intelligence implements techniques that guarantee the quality of analysis for every image the model it looks at. 

“We are presently completing the Innovation Authority’s program after receiving funding for three years,” Kutliroff says. “It has been a very successful experience and we enjoyed working with the Authority’s representatives who came to learn what we do. 

“All the AI techniques we use are based on things that can be understood from academia and research, but significant gaps are revealed when they are applied to develop a product. It was very important to solve the challenging technical problems with the help of the Authority.” 

An Agronomist in Your Smartphone

After a long career as an intelligence officer, Simcha Shore – founder and CEO of Agroscout – chose agriculture as the field he wanted to engage in. 

“One of the things that fascinated me in agriculture was the astonishing fact that the Israeli farmer grows double the quantity per dunam than the overwhelming majority of famers worldwide. This is achieved through agronomic and farming knowledge and experience”, says Shore. “Farmers of all nationalities are the most religious people in the world in my opinion – they plant and then start praying. This is because there is no order or logic – anything can happen. In practice, farming has been done statistically for generations.”

What does he mean? The average farmer looking at his field cannot see all the crops. That’s why he sometimes sprays a specific substance unnecessarily, or the wrong substance simply because that’s accepted practice in the third or fourth week of the growing cycle. This results in a loss of 30 percent of the world’s agricultural produce due to pests and disease. 

In contrast, a different method has developed in Israel – expert human supervision – and already eighty years ago women overseers walked the cotton fields in the Hula Valley. “This is the massive difference between the Israeli farmer and agronomist and most farmers around the world, who lack access to close agronomic expertise,” explains Shore. 

This is where Agroscout enters the picture. The company has developed a platform that enables farmers – from private individuals to huge food growing companies – to receive online information about problems, diseases and pests in their fields using AI image analysis. The images with which the software operates can be obtained in a variety of ways, from a simple smartphone, via UAVs or satellite images.

The precise and professional information allows the farmers to generate a higher yield per agricultural unit, to spray less chemicals and, ultimately, to produce a better crop for us, the consumers. In other words, efficiency, profitability, and sustainability in a single solution. 

“Agroscout engages in business intelligence,” Shore explains. “It looks at the farmer and tries to bring the best Israeli knowledge and experience to every plant on the planet.” As a startup in the field of agri-tech, Agroscout looks at the world of farming like a data company – from sowing to harvest. “There is tremendous technological and farming knowledge here and we connect the two,” Shore says. “I’m not a tech person or a farmer, but somewhere in the middle. I’m a data professional. My advantage over solutions of other companies is that I don’t rely on hardware – you can buy a telephone and commercial UAV anywhere. 

“We didn’t invent the technology of the internet, the smartphone, the cloud, AI, the UAV or robotics, but we took them all together and built a service that is accessible to everyone. Today, someone photographs an image in Africa and the overseer analyzing it may be located in Mexico.” 

From the Galilee to the World

Agroscout’s success was not guaranteed, Shore says. “When I left the army, I didn’t even have a marketing presentation prepared. The Innovation Authority led me from a presentation to a prototype and from the prototype to a product, and I suddenly found myself in farmers’ fields in the US. That wouldn’t have happened without the Innovation Authority and the Ministry of Economy.” 

The company has raised 10 million dollars so far and has received several grants. “The Innovation Authority is our biggest supporter,” Shore says. “They provide significant assistance in challenging periods like now, when we are in a global crisis.” 

Shore says that Agroscout actually made its mark during COVID. Farmers couldn’t send overseers out to the fields, so they flew UAVs, uploaded the images to Agroscout, and received a completely new view of farming. “There is an entire world of immense uncertainty which we are somewhat helping to reduce,” Shore says. “Today we can demonstrate that we are genuinely contributing to the bottom line: the farmer spends less money on resources and achieves more high-quality produce.”

Agroscout operates within a clear framework: in a world with more people, there is a need to grow more food with less resources of water, fertilizer, and chemicals, and in a way that is healthier and safer for the environment, all of which is facilitated by the company’s platform. In effect, they take the knowledge and experience of the overseer in the Hula Valley and implement it on every image they receive from around the world. Gathering the data provides us the opportunity to realize this vision.

Beyond the global vision, Agroscout also has a local vision: “I took the company from Misgav to the Lebanese border from a purely Zionist motive. Part of our calling is to bring the ‘startup nation’ to the social or geographical periphery. There are entire populations here that are not part of the startup nation. The children here learn at the best schools and then go to work in companies in Tel Aviv. They don’t return because there is nothing to return to. Thanks to the Innovation Authority, we operate a company that creates high-tech jobs and not just in a shoe factory, and that is very important.”

Agroscout employs people of all religions and sectors – including ultra-Orthodox women from Bnei Brak. The company was recently chosen for the ‘Google for Startups’ Accelerator Program and sent a cosmopolitan group of employees to Munich. 

Agroscout presently operates in over 20 countries and has a company in the US. Shore summarizes: “If you had asked me five years ago, before I even had a marketing presentation, I would have had a hard time believing that I would be working today with the world’s largest food and agriculture companies.” 

This blog is part of a series of five articles in which experts from the Israel Innovation Authority explore of how Israeli Artificial Intelligence is spearheading global development in the field. For more articles:

About the Author
Ziv Katzir is the Head of the National Program for AI Infrastructure at Israel Innovation Authority, an independent public entity that operates for the benefit of the Israeli innovation ecosystem and Israeli economy as a whole.
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