Headquartered in Zaragoza, in north-eastern Spain, Internet of Things (IoT) manufacturer Libelium is making waves in the world of smart agriculture. Founded in 2006 by Alicia Asín Pérez, the company’s solutions seek to monitor and improve the efficiency of everything from agricultural crops to water quality management around the world. Libelium’s technology is even currently being used above the tomb of Tutankhamun to collect climatic data – relative humidity, temperature – and measure fracture aperture behaviour above the tomb.
Focused on using digital technology for environmental and sustainability purposes, Alicia Asín became the first Spanish woman to win the National Entrepreneur Award. Here we speak to her about how Libelium’s solutions are helping farmers and growers, and why the challenge to adoption is as much a cultural issue as a technological one.
Sensors for Smart Agriculture
“When we launched, the company’s mission was to create sensors that could connect the physical world to the digital one,” said Asín. “We connect any kind of sensor using any communication protocol to any information system, either on-site, or in the cloud, or whatever place that you want to store your data.”
Libelium’s technology features in a broad range of use cases. Libelium’s Plug&Sense! Smart Agriculture has helped one Russian dairy farm increase their milk production by 18 percent using environmental information such as temperature, humidity, pressure, cow health and other parameters.
Elsewhere, its technology has been used to develop a smart system to monitor the production of baby leaf greens in Italy. By helping to monitor environmental parameters such as temperature, relative humidity and air pressure, luminosity and leaf wetness, the growers can make more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides, resulting in healthier crops and significant cost savings.
This, said Asín, is important given European directives that “force you to justify every single drop of fertiliser you’re producing. It’s not a matter of how much you have to fertilise your crop, but you have a fixed amount of fertiliser that you can use, and you need to use it wisely. Then, it’s a total game changer.”
Another interesting use case is among Spanish vineyards which are developing new IoT technology in the face of climate change. Temperature, rainfall, potential evapotranspiration, sunlight and wind are the most influential factors affecting the physiology of the grape. Knowing these aspects in advance can help oenologists better calibrate the different parameters which determine the character and quality of the wine.
“We have applied technology to vineyards to increase the productivity of the crop, and to reduce the amount use the amount of water used to irrigate,” said Asín, noting that growers can save between 20 to 30 percent of irrigation water.
Farmers need the will and the means to embrace agtech solutions
Challenges remain when it comes to adoption of IoT solutions in agriculture. One of the biggest appears not to be technological, but cultural.
“There is a big gap… between the end users and the technology,” said Asín. “That is in some cases due to a lack of understanding of the solutions. It’s not a sector that is highly technical, and especially in countries like Spain, it’s not professionalised at all.”
“But it’s also a lack of funding, a lack of the right dimensions to make the business case. In Spain, the sector is highly fragmented. Instead of three, five, ten different farmers sharing technology they each have to make their own investment.”
Alicia Asín is calling for more grants and subsidies into the sector to make it more competitive and capable of keeping talent. “The drama we are seeing in many parts of Europe is that young people don’t want to keep working in agriculture like their parents. They associate agriculture with being non-technical, a non-highly qualified sector, and where life is going to be very hard. It’s better for you to go to the city and take any other job,” she said.
It is also a question of educating farmers, overcoming any resistance to using the technology and gaining a real understanding of their problems.
“I’m participating in many conversations these days related to the EU Recovery Fund, which I think is a brilliant opportunity to ‘technify’ agriculture. But my biggest fear is that if we don’t get it right, there will be technology companies asking for money to create yet another solution for agriculture without any potential customer willing to make the investment. I’m always saying, talk to the farmers, make sure they have the money to make the investment and the human resources to adapt their processes accordingly.”
“We do have an excellent opportunity right now; the question is do we want to keep giving European money to research centres that want to justify more and more projects to create new solutions? Or is it time to make that technology affordable and usable by the users it is supposed to be working for?”