Startups Deploy Israeli Intelligence Technology on Crops

Jan. 18, 2019, 7:05 AM

Israel is turning high-tech swords into modern-day plowshares to gather advanced intelligence that helps farmers detect deadly parasites and improve crop yields.

Several startups in Israel are using techniques developed by the country’s military and intelligence forces that combine big data, remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and multichannel signals analysis.

Young entrepreneurs graduating from Israel’s elite intelligence and military technology units have adapted security software and systems to civilian use in cybersecurity, geolocation, automobiles, connectivity, and health. It was only a matter of time before startups began to combine spyware and sustainable farming.

“These are things that agricultural companies can’t really do themselves,” said Ofir Schlam, co-founder and CEO.of Tel Aviv-based Taranis, which provides aerial imagery for high-volume commodity crops like corn, cotton, sugarcane, and soybean. “They are really good at genetics and chemistry and seeds, but not usually at remote sensing.”

SeeTree Systems Ltd., a Tel Aviv precision agriculture company headed by a former deputy commander of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, emerged from stealth mode Jan. 16 with a platform that tracks “health, disease spread, yield quantity, and size estimation per tree for every tree, as well as the response of trees to irrigation, climate and soil,” said Barak Hachamov, co-founder and chairman.

The company has partnerships with major corporate clients, offices in California and Brazil, and its service is used by major growers worldwide, Hachamov said by email.

“We are providing them with actionable data gathered from a multidisciplined approach that incorporates artificial intelligence and machine learning, which enables them to efficiently modify their growing methods to improve yields and total return on investment,” he said.

Under Surveillance

High-resolution imagery tools and sophisticated sensors that pinpoint location and monitor assets for military troops and intelligence operations are also helping to detect early symptoms of weeds, nutrient deficiencies, disease or insect infestations, and nutrient deficiencies.

Nutrien Ltd., the Canadian seed and chemical giant, has a strategic partnership with Taranis to deploy its high-definition aerial imagery originally developed for Israeli reconnaissance drones to provide “an early-warning system for incoming diseases, weeds, insects, and fertilizer problems that cause about 30 percent of crop losses worldwide,” Schlam said by phone Jan. 16.

Soil sensors developed by CropX Technologies Ltd., a Netanya-based start-up, take half-hourly readings uploaded to the cloud every six hours from 2,000 locations in 40 countries. The sensors, self-installed by farmers, combine data on underground water, temperature, and salinity, with information from weather stations, satellites, and other sources to show exactly when and where to water crops like eggplants, melons, and potatoes.

CropX has strategic partnerships with major seeding and fertilizer companies, as well as large agricultural and food retailers “looking to cooperate with startups to bring innovation into their organizations,” CEO Tomer Tzach said by phone Jan. 16.

A pilot program on an Arizona farm managed by IAF Investments Group used CropX sensors to cut crop water consumption by 40 percent and increased yield by 10 percent.

“The results have so far been impressive,” said Jon-Michael J. Nahon, IAF’s managing partner and head of market operations.

“By tightly monitoring moisture levels, we seem to be able to harvest a couple days earlier on average, which, if confirmed, could result in one extra cutting per year. So far, we are very excited by the results and plan to generalize the system on our farms starting in 2019,” he said.

Intelligent Applications

A research engine that Netanya-based SparkBeyond developed applies machine-learning to multiple data sets that unveils complex patterns and questions that clients haven’t even considered.

When owners of one of the world’s largest palm plantations in Indonesia asked for help to increase yields, the engine directed them to their own warehouse.

“We found an overlooked fertilizer that nobody paid any attention to before. Just by using this fertilizer, the yield went up by a significant amount. It was something they had in their stores but never thought about using it,” said Amir Haramaty, SparkBeyond’s chief commercial officer.

“This new era of data provides opportunities across the board. It makes perfect sense in agriculture because a lot of that was based mostly on intuition and experience,” Haramaty said by phone Jan. 16. “Now you can do it in a scientific way, data based, down to a specific field. That makes a huge difference.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem at correspondents@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Jean Fogarty at jfogarty@bloombergenvironment.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloombergenvironment.com

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