Sensors that calculate soil moisture, solar radiation or humidity inside a greenhouse. Digital traps that photograph insects that are harmful to crops. Equation models that combine the climatic conditions under plastic with the weather forecasts outside and determine the right watering for each day. Beyond tomatoes, zucchini, aubergines or peppers, the intensive agriculture of Almería is home to a wide variety of technological devices whose implementation is growing by leaps and bounds. Greater efficiency in the use of water, yield improvement and pest control are just some of the applications of the devices tested at the Las Palmerillas experimental station in Pineapple, promoted by the Cajamar Foundation in El Ejido.
“Our raison d’être is to help farmers improve,” says Roberto García, director of Agri-Food Innovation at Cajamar and head of this research center. He tells it in front of a model that helps to know the dimensions of an enclosure built in 1975 to support the development of technologies applied to agriculture. Close to the A-7 motorway and surrounded by thousands of farms, the space has 14 hectares of crops and 30 greenhouses where research and testing of devices that can help the field are carried out. There are three basic lines: the efficient use of water resources, the fight against pests and the improvement of greenhouse structures. There are trials with subtropical and other fruits, but cultivation under plastic is the star because it is the main economic engine of Almería. More than 17,000 farmers, 32,000 hectares and a turnover of around 3,000 million euros per year are plenty of arguments.
Inside greenhouse number 1, wearing a protective gown over her clothes and plastic booties wrapping her shoes, the Corpus Pérez researcher skillfully holds a strange device. It looks like a birdhouse with a chimney, but it is actually one of the most advanced digital traps for the fight against dangerous insects for crops. It is designed to combat a small lepidopteran called absolute tuta, whose minuscule presence can wreak havoc in large tomato plantations. The device has a small container with pheromones that attracts the insect and it is stuck in an adhesive. These traditional components are now joined by new technologies: a camera that takes periodic photographs, uploads them to the cloud and, thanks to artificial intelligence, recognizes which insects have been captured. It has a database with 60 different species. “If there is one specimen one day, two the next and then it goes to more, the system alerts the farmer of a pest forecast so that he can respond in advance,” explains the scientist. “And since it learns with use, the device works better and better,” emphasizes Pérez.
This technology —which operates with solar energy— is part of the European project smart protect. It started in 2020 with the participation of 15 partners including universities, research centers and technology providers from a dozen countries. It seeks to create a platform that houses all the tools related to comprehensive pest management. One of them is the digital trap installed in hall 1 of the experimental station, where hundreds of beautiful tomato plants grow almost two meters high.
There is another model there that identifies smaller bugs. On a yellow sticker there are about fifteen tiny white flies. “These cameras have higher resolution to identify very small specimens. Depending on how many flies there are, it makes a forecast and warns,” says Pérez, who shows two other different devices in another greenhouse, number 7. “We are testing how they work to see which are more effective,” he clarifies while opening an application on his mobile —Plantix, which identifies crop problems from photographs— because part of his job is also to check its effectiveness and that of other similar ones.
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Next to the traps you can see many other electronic devices. There are sensors that measure solar radiation —inside it is 60% less than outside— and others that do so with temperature or relative humidity. These data and the weather forecast for the next seven days are enough for any farmer to know how much water his crop needs under plastic. “And with great precision”, highlights the researcher María Dolores Fernández. Her work to know exactly the water consumption of the plants depending on the climatic conditions and the size of the specimen have allowed her to develop a methodology to calculate the necessary irrigation at all times. “Water is scarce and you have to manage it as best as possible,” the specialist stresses.
The calculation is accessible to any farmer through the earth platform, launched by the Cajamar Group in 2021 to unify knowledge and transfer it to the sector. It has four sections—innovation, markets, training and tools—for use by any farmer. These calculations are part of the IGUESS-MED project developed together with Tunisia, Turkey and Italy. The last two countries are already testing it in their greenhouses with positive results. The system designed by this research center to estimate irrigation is also being applied to the use of fertilizers and to recommend the amount of fertilizer at all times. Part of this technology is also used in an application developed by the Institute for Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training (IFAPA) of the Junta de Andalucía that determines the irrigation of red fruits under plastic in places like Huelva. Example of how this experimental station improves local and global agriculture.
Experimental spaces for ‘start-ups’
Sensors such as those developed by the company Ikostech are also tested in these Almeria greenhouses, one of the first to form part of the incubator launched two years ago by the Cajamar Foundation and through which some 40 start-ups. Its technological devices and ceramic base calculate the soil moisture and it is enough to apply maximum and minimum water limits so that they themselves decide when and how much it is necessary to irrigate. It even allows you to automate these water contributions. In one year, the company has installed some 2,000 of these devices in the province of Almería. Other firms such as Agualytics, Smart Inver or Bihox Agro are in different phases of incubation or acceleration. “We provide them with offices in Almería, but the distinguishing feature of the project is that they can work at the experimental station,” says the director of the Las Palmerillas experimental station, Roberto García. The site is being transformed to have more small plots where entrepreneurs can develop their technology. “We can also provide them with the knowledge of our technicians, that of the network of collaborators and what the users themselves contribute, that is, the farmers, with important tests in real conditions,” concludes García.
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