ACTTiVAte’s target technologies and type of SMEs

ACTTiVATe’s targeted SMEs are those being part of the supply chain of the aerospace, agrifood, health and ICT sectors, developing their activity from the first phase of the product life cycle and being able to develop new prototypes with technologies acquired from other sectors.

Besides, the aim is that SMEs are expected to generate new services and products with the acquired technology, fostering the creation and consolidation of emerging industries. SMEs targeted are either well-established companies that want to enter new markets/value chains with cross-sector innovations and start-ups/spin-offs that will build up a business with a new technology.

Target technologies:

Technology translation to the Smart Agro-food sector includes, among others: light materials and structures for transport, portable Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), advanced sensing or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPASs).Light materials and structures for transports can very much reduce energy consumption in transports and/or heavy-duty machinery. Lightweight materials allow for energy saving when applied into the design and manufacturing of the vehicles and mobile devices. Both the novel materials per se and their advanced design and manufacturing methodologies will be transferred, thus up-scaling the potential benefits to several industries within the destination sector.

Portable Auxiliary Power Units (APUs are greatly desired for all kind of remote or autonomous applications. Large agriculture fields are prone for isolation and lack of energy access. Reliable, cost-effective APU may support (1) communications, (2) data acquisition systems, (3) vehicles autonomy, (4) backup energy sources, etc. Different energy storage methods may be sought, such as solar-to-battery, hydrogen fuel cells, compressed gas, etc. Aerospace has been delivering and improving successful solutions for these issues for decades now.

Advances in Sensing technologies in aerospace have promoted each time smaller sensors and interrogation systems for reliable measurements and acquisition of multi-type data for health monitoring. Some of the nearly non-invasive sensors (optical fibres, piezoresistive, dielectric, etc) may be used complimentarily for sensing of biological structures (plants, ecosystems, etc.) where bio-compatibility is highly governed by the invasive level of the interacting technologies. Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems are increasingly used for wide variety of applications. Recent advances in (1) autonomy, (2) robustness and (3) mission control, provide the basis for their implementation into cos-effective surveillance. This can be implemented for (1) wild life monitoring/protection, (2) image collection, (3) chemicals spreading, (4) fire inspection, (5) security, etc. Health sector can incorporate several aerospace technologies, among which we will focus on sensing, light-weighted and high-strength and conductive materials. Sensors developed in the aerospace industry enable the creation of more sensitive biosensors for the medical care industry. Weight saving is a main driver in aerospace industry. Regarding conductive materials: Attributing primary function (e.g., structural) and secondary functions (e.g., insulation, conductivity, energy storage, etc.) to a material system enhances its utility and decreases overall costs of applications. In the case of health, such multi-functionality may be sought as agent for reducing size of devices and equipment, which is critical for human-invasive applications and treatments. Some Advanced Field Non- Destructive Inspection techniques will be also envisaged for profitable translation.


Regarding the farming & food management chain, the most relevant technologies are advanced sensing systems (soil, plant growth, diseases, etc.),supported by vision, radar, satellites and Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones), wireless sensor networks, robotics in primary production and in the food factory, 3D food printing, analytics/farming devices systems, farm management systems, farming instrumentation, advanced (including 3D)Geographic Information Systems (GIS) based on multi and hyper spectral images, big data applied to the farm and food management chain, APPs as farmers decision support system or technologies for greenhouses and closed systems, such as climate control, new covers to improve photosynthesis or light materials. The logistics value chain has a great potential for optimization through the inclusion of several technologies, such as Auto Identification Systems (including RFID and biometric identifiers), cloud-based and service-oriented tracking & tracing, sensing systems for ambient conditions, microbiological information (biosensors), and other food quality parameters, remote product quality monitoring systems, augmented reality (e.g. for quality inspection), storage and transportation systems for perishables, robotized transport, food safety control and early warning, logistic planning & optimization systems, food chain information systems (based on cloud computing / Software as a Service), vision-based sorting systems and adaptive packaging systems. The retail and consumer value chains can be improved by combining smartphones and wearables with low-cost sensors e.g. for personalised nutrition advices, and by virtual reality and gamification technologies, e.g. to improve consumer awareness on the health effects of food. The advanced technologies of the aerospace sector have resulted and will continue to result in many innovations in the agro-food domain. For example, precision farming is driven by technologies that were developed in aerospace, including satellites and drones for remote crop sensing. The health sector is increasingly interweaved with the agro-food domain, especially because of the awareness of the impact of relation between food consumption and so-called diseases of civilization, including obesity and food allergies. Moreover, there is a strong cross-fertilization of technical innovations between both domains because many technologies can be applied both to humans and animals. For example: 3D meat printing is using advancements in the 3D printing of human organs.


The sector of health displays its activity in many fields, among which there are strong technological connections with ICT, agro-food and aerospace. We’ll mainly focus on electrochemical sensing, microencapsulation, enzymatic based detection systems, electrochemical sensors, processes based on microorganisms, 3D bio-printing systems, big data network for anonymous health system records or nutritional software. Purification systems based on microalgae-bacteria consortia, has an excellent ability to debug on pollutants present in the olives wash water, with an important decline in principal contaminants, which could have huge potential applications in the fields of agriculture, food, health and cosmetics. Selective electrochemical sensors for a wide variety of substances and offers significant competitive advantages over chromatographic or immune-enzymatic techniques that already exist in the market. Currently, many analytical tests for disease diagnosis, control on food safety, agriculture controls, process controls on pharmaceuticals, drug control, etc. are performed, these sensors have a clear application potential in the food security: detection of adulterated food by quantifying toxic antibiotics and pesticides and duality control during manufacturing processes, among others. 3D bio-printing systems use precise positioning systems and micro injection systems to fabricate supports made out of biomaterials (scaffolds) and impregnate those supports with cells, allowing the study of new medicines and cell behaviour. Current bio-printers share the same technology for building living tissues. New technology advances in inter-sectoral fields such as aeronautics or agro-food, regarding to sensors, actuators, new biomaterials and smart materials, robotics, etc. could mean new improvements and applications in the biomedical sector. Crystallization devices make possible to carry out crystallization experiments for drugs and other molecules in space, under micro-gravity conditions. They contain Crystallization Boxes, a simple device to crystallize protein and other biological macromolecules by counter-diffusion method. This device is basically a container capable of withstanding the launch and re-entry, and that meets the safety requirements of the ISS (International Space Station).


Geoinformation in Arable Farming

What’s Hot and What’s Not in Precision Agriculture.

Agriculture enthusiastically absorbs geospatial technologies. Precision farming practices in particular benefit from location intelligence. The future in agriculture with geospatial applications is bright. Besides more efficiency on the farm, geospatial technologies also offer new business opportunities and new sustainability concepts. But the adoption of geospatial innovations is lagging behind expectations. So what’s hot and what’s not? This article examines the state of the art in geospatial technologies in agriculture and attempts to forecast the trends.

By Tamme van der Wal and Henk Janssen, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), The Netherlands

By far the most popular geomatics technology among farmers is the global navigation satellite system (GNSS). Since farmers have had steering aids and fully automated machine guidance, their efficiency in field operations has increased by 10 to 15%. GNSS is a very versatile technology; it also helps farmers to map their fields, geolocate objects and track and trace their machinery or livestock. One application that utilises GNSS as a guidance and tracking tool is the routing of machinery in the field. The first step in this is to accurately measure the field boundaries where a crop can be grown. This information is used to design the optimal layout of driving lanes, taking the width of machinery, turning angles and the field geometry into consideration. This enables the detection of areas with inefficient machine manoeuvring which, in the optimal path plan, are ideally moved to the side of the field and/or given another function (e.g. as a nature strip). With the advent of robotic field work, planning an optimal path is an efficient way of instructing machines where to go. The next step is to calculate the routing along these paths in order to optimise the bulk cargo capacity on board the field machines. For instance, an optimal route plan for fertiliser spreading would minimise the time and distance to reload fertiliser.


GNSS is also an indispensable tool in what is called ‘variable rate application’: a method for giving the right dose of an input in the right place. Here, innovation is mainly driven by the use of sensors for environmental parameters, including soil conditions, water availability, vegetation monitoring and yield monitoring. Satellite remote sensing has always been an appealing way of monitoring large areas of agricultural land, but it is only recently that the Earth observation sector has become organised in such a way as to make operational data feeds to agriculture feasible. The European Sentinel satellites, which form part of the Copernicus programme, have given rise to new optimism since the continuous monitoring and the download functionality are unprecedented, at least in the public domain. The only drawback is that agricultural applications mostly rely on the optical sensors on board Sentinel-2, and successful imaging of agricultural land requires clear skies. Given the fact that 90% of agricultural land worldwide is rain-fed, the abundance of clouds in the growing season is an obstacle. Nevertheless, the minimum six-day revisit of Sentinel-2 is a significant improvement on Landsat-8 (16 days).

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

For areas with too much cloud cover, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or ‘drones’) are an excellent proxy. In a way, UAVs at last allow farmers to capitalise on almost 50 years of remote sensing knowledge and application ideas. Furthermore, the explosion of players in the marketplace, and their diversity, feeds innovation at every link in the chain between image acquisition and user application. For instance, software solutions for photogrammetry, image mosaicking, reflectance calibration, index calculations and related GIS functionalities are emerging at an incredible pace.

As in other sectors, UAVs are a major hype. The technology and regulations are improving every day, however, which means that at a certain tipping point the technology will become indispensable to all. And although UAVs are currently mainly regarded as platforms for sensors, they can also become the next-generation tractor on which all kinds of crop care implements will be installed. This capability is demonstrated by a Japanese application in which unmanned helicopters perform crop spraying, for example.

From an agricultural point of view, to optimally benefit from all these technologies the farmer must have an integrated system for the collection, storage, analysis and visualisation of all the data and tools. In this domain, too, the pace of advancement is very high: machine manufacturers, farm equipment suppliers and input suppliers (i.e. fertilisers, seeds, etc.) are offering data management tools with a geospatial interface. This is also attracting start-ups from various backgrounds who need little more than a software platform as a vehicle to create business value with their specific proposition.

Business Opportunities

The rise of precision farming and the use of geospatial technologies bring all kinds of new business opportunities in domains including sensoring (data and/or equipment supply), machine guidance (and path planning), geospatial-based office applications to work with soil maps, remote sensing imagery, yield monitors and crop growth optimisation/decision support, not to mention a whole world of maintenance and support for all these new technologies. In this context, it is impossible to ignore The Climate Corporation, which is now part of Bayer through recent acquisitions. With Climate Corp data, Monsanto and now Bayer are able to combine soil, weather and crop growth information to prescribe which seeds and which agents are best suited for every field on Earth. And as they apply it to a huge set of customer information, this has become a totally new way of farming, called ‘prescription farming’ or ‘decision farming’. Other opportunities involve market prices and crop acreages, allowing calculation of whether an additional supply of fertiliser or water will increase the yield sufficiently to deliver a payback or not. In another opportunity, on-demand growing and delivering of food now seems not too far off, although it also depends on the crop of course. This trend is already visible in horticulture – the non-geospatial agricultural example for arable farming – where retailers (in particular the emerging foodbox companies) are creating better demand-driven supply chains.

The most important question here is, do the investments and benefits coincide? Or are farmers the ones making the investments, while their suppliers and customers reap the benefits? While it is easy to make a clear business case for suppliers of machinery, fertilisers, seeds, agro-chemicals, etc. and for customers in the agrifood chain including retailers and food processing companies, farmers themselves have difficulties making a business case for precision farming investments. Although there are only a handful of studies addressing the adoption issue, they show clear benefits for farmers when applying precision farming technologies – not only in resource efficiency (costs savings), but also in quality increases and yield increases. However, despite these positive studies, the impact on the farm’s business is variable. In particular smaller farms can be reluctant to invest when the payback time is 10 to 15 years or more. The technological framework is very wide and complex. It is not easy to oversee the consequence of a choice for a certain brand or operational method. Certainly, the poor connectivity in many rural areas poses challenges in obtaining and sharing the data needed for precision farming applications. And, as mentioned above, the eagerness to ‘own’ a data platform so as not to miss out on the next level of farming is also leading to a lack of interoperability at all levels. Another major issue here is education, both at academic and vocational level, with a new generation of farmers only now (finally) starting to learn and experience the benefits of precision farming for themselves. Hence this is another opportunity for new businesses: forming collaborative partnerships with other farms can create the economies of scale necessary to reap the benefits from precision farming. Agriculture already has a tradition of doing this, e.g. mill cooperatives or machine-sharing schemes.


Despite increasing societal demands for farms to produce the best possible food in a sustainable way, the slow adoption of precision farming is holding back sustainability improvements most of all. Precision farming technologies could dramatically reduce the ecological footprint of food production: 10-15% less energy use (fuel) and 10-20% lower inputs (e.g. crop protection agents, fertilisers and water) for the same level of production or, in other words, increased productivity per kilogram of fertiliser, litre of fuel, litre of water or man-hour. Hence there is an incentive for governments to stimulate the adoption of precision farming, as it will contribute to solving environmental issues as well as mitigating farming’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This is already resulting in new regulations. The European Commission is investigating opportunities to extend its concept of ‘greening’ towards the uptake of precision farming. This would imply that adopting these new technologies will increase one’s ‘licence to operate’; in other words, the technology will help farmers to improve acceptance of their activities by their neighbours, their personnel, their customers and by society at large. Needless to say, geoinformation will play a key role in achieving and monitoring this greening concept.


Agriculture will benefit from the revolution in information & communication technology taking place in all industries: robotisation, sensoring, smarter decision support systems, data analytics, etc. For the geospatial domain, the robotisation of field work is a particularly important challenge. It is a huge operation to guide robots – either on wheels or in the air – using navigation systems and sensors, to store all the data and integrate it in the relevant applications. But robots will eventually take over the dull, dangerous, dirty and perhaps even difficult jobs that are abundant in agriculture.

Furthermore, changes in society will cause a growing shift towards more demand-driven supply chains, requiring further integration of the business processes between the farmer and his suppliers on the one side and between the farmer and his customers on the other. That integration must lead to better chain performance and more optimal food production.

This article has focused on the application of geospatial data, tools and knowledge on farms themselves. Clearly geoinformation plays an important role in other areas of food production too, such as global food security monitoring, logistics, measures for disease containment, ways to administer and control subsidies and contracts, etc. In that sense, agriculture is no different to other industries, except that the ‘factories’ are outdoors and the machinery is mobile.