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[Interview] FluroSat: Combining satellite imagery and farm data to predict crop issues

Interview has been originally published on Compasslist on Nov, 20 2020.

This year’s Future of Food Asia winner offers a crop management software that can be used with existing agritech platforms, adding value with machine learning, and is even used for sustainability reporting.

The Australian startup’s main product, FluroSense, integrates with existing agritech platforms, adds value with machine learning and is even used for sustainability reporting.

Monitoring the state of crops on hundreds of acres of farmland sounds like a formidable task, if not impossible. Yet this is what farmers and agribusinesses demand from agronomists. To give these agronomists a helping hand, Australian startup FluroSat provides a solution, combining satellite imagery and ground data, to anticipate potential crop problems.

FluroSat’s main product, FluroSense, combines data from various sources, including high resolution satellite imagery, weather records and ground-level sensors, into one dashboard and uses machine learning to generate crop models that predict stress events, such as lack of water or fertilizer. Clients can then quickly locate the problem areas and fix them.

What we do is crop modeling based on weather data, which includes satellite imagery as the feedback loop. We can track [the plant’s] development through modeling that allows us to say how much the biomass is supposed to be at various stages.

Anastasia Volkova, CEO and founder of FluroSat

Seamless integration

Some of FluroSat’s clients that run large-scale farming operations already have data collection and automation platforms, such as ProAgrica, Agworld, and John Deere. According to Volkova, FluroSense’s strongest feature is its ability to easily integrate with these platforms and combine its data processing and modeling technology with data from those platforms.

An example is SprayWise Decisions, a platform run by Australian agricultural chemical company, Nufarm. Using FluroSat’s crop and weather modeling, SprayWise Decisions provides advice on exactly when farmers need to spray their crops. Netafim, an Israeli irrigation equipment manufacturer, provides precise predictions of water needs and potential irrigation issues by integrating its platform with FluroSat.

We are spending a lot of time and energy investing in workflows and integrations. This is one of the most important focal points of our product.

Anastasia Volkova, CEO and founder of FluroSat

This is how FluroSat differentiates itself from the competition and expanded quickly, said Volkova. In addition to agronomists and farmers in Australia and New Zealand, FluroSat also works with more than 20 agribusinesses, some of which have operations in multiple countries.

The workflow is the underlying fabric of human relationships. If your input provider or food processor has a better idea of how their crops are performing and you have touchpoints with them, it would be a much more productive relationship.

Anastasia Volkova, CEO and founder of FluroSat

She said FluroSense can, through machine learning-based crop modeling,​ ​take advantage of data fed into the system by clients to keep refining its models. “Clients are excited to see how their data feeds into the machine learning module. They can see if there are areas they need to look for more data.”

FluroSat also uses actual soil data sourced from researchers, agronomists, and farmers to predict certain parameters, such as nitrogen content, as conventional satellites cannot see chemical content in the soil.

Opportunities, challenges in Asia

Although FluroSat can provide its services to anyone because it can process data from anywhere, its presence in Asia is limited to some pilot tests in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Vietnam. Volkova sees potential for expansion in the region, but there are also challenges to overcome.

A key difference in the farming sector between Asia and FluroSat’s current market is the size of the holdings. Most farmers in Asia are smallholders with much smaller areas of land compared with broadacre farms in Australia and the US. Volkova said this could pose a challenge in fitting FluroSat’s product offering into Asian markets, but it is not the biggest challenge.

It’s not actually the size of the fields, it’s the environment. Some places get so much rain, with many cloudy days. That’s a problem for remote sensing via satellites. Of course, we can acquire [ground level] data, but that’s additional cost. So we need to solve the problem of how to not increase costs prohibitively, while still drawing enough data to provide the analytics.

Anastasia Volkova, CEO and founder of FluroSat

Sustainability reporting

With its data on crops, agrichemical use and environmental impacts, all in a single platform, FluroSat has found a new use for its product: sustainability reporting. Some of FluroSat’s clients are using it to compile compliance data for sustainability certification in agricultural practices.

Volkova sees a big opportunity in sustainability reporting for the agricultural sector. As agricultural activities involve planting crops in wide areas, it could potentially be marketed as a carbon-capture industry. However, she also said there needs to be clear regulations and standards on sustainability reporting for agriculture.

In Volkova’s view, without standards that can be tested and verified, there will not be enough trust in agricultural sustainability reporting to market the “green” angle. She said that agritech companies are under pressure to demonstrate their products were produced with sustainable practices.

You want regulation so you can trust the certification and the carbon credit you’re buying. You can’t estimate this from satellite images. You need to demonstrate the science and produce reports with sufficient accuracy before you can say it’s a viable, sustainable product.

Anastasia Volkova, CEO and founder of FluroSat
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