Smart Farming is the movement of the moment. Take Thailand, for example – tech spending shot up by over 7% just this year in agriculture due to government funding.

Countries across Asia are setting out national strategies to support the automation of farming with robotics, data analytics and sensor technology. These tools can make a huge difference to crop yields, quality, and – most importantly – rural farmers’ profits. Malaysia even has a high-tech Durian scheme.

GovInsider has gathered the cutting-edge and, yes, the cool, to highlight how countries in the region are ploughing ahead in this once old-fashioned sector.

1. Australia

Robots in Australia are milking cows. In Camden, south-west of Australia, the FutureDairy prototype can milk up to 90 cows an hour.

Cows step on to a revolving platform, where robotic arms then clean the teats, attach cups and extract milk.

Each cow wears a dongle around the neck that records and transmits the duration and volume of its last milking. Farmers don’t have to be down by the farms – they can access this data on their iPads, and check yield and production records.

In another project, the University of Sydney’s centre for field robotics is piloting agricultural robotics to assist farmers.

Swagbot is a robot herding cattle designed to roam vast and rough terrains, with hopeful deployment to eventually monitor the health of livestock in the next few months. “We want to improve the quality of animal health and make it easier for farmers to maintain large landscapes where animals roam free”, says Salah Sukkarieh, project lead.

2. Japan

hydroponic plant

Japan is looking at robots to automate crop farms and pick fruits.

The world’s first robot farm will operate by June of next year, and the automated helpers will carry out all the tasks, save one: “The seeds will still be planted by humans, but every other step, from the transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces as they grow to harvesting the lettuces, will be done automatically,” JJ Price – Spread’s global marketing manager – told the Guardian.

The automated system will also control the temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and light sources, besides also sterilising water.

Between its two farms, Spread will see a boost in the production of lettuce heads to 50,000 a day, from 21,000 at present. Costs can also be slashed – LED lighting saves energy costs by a third, and 98 percent of water supply will be recycled.

“Our new farm could become a model for other farms, but our aim is not to replace human farmers, but to develop a system where humans and machines work together,” Price said.

Robot fruit pickers also exist – these machines can recognise ripe strawberries and tomatoes based on the colour, calculate the distance of its arms from the fruit, and snip away faster than farmers can.

3. Malaysia

Malaysia is leveraging sensor and data in farms, and aims to increase farming productivity by 20% in the next five years.

The country – one of the largest exporters of palm oil in the world – has launched a national IoT plan with agriculture as one of the priorities. It wants to ramp up farming capacities, and envisions generating 1.4 billion (US$320 million) in 2020 with smart farming tech.

MIMOS, the country’s ICT R&D centre, has developed an IoT platform that captures environmental data and shares it across agricultural producers, traders and suppliers.

It is also trialling sensors in farms. “We are using IoT to detect the right time to pollinate oil palm flowers”, Ahmad Helmi Abdul Halim, Senior Director of Corporate Market Strategy at MIMOS told GovInsider. Sensors will also be used to track the health of fish in breeding ponds and automate irrigation.

As part of its agricultural drive, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation last month also developed a platform for users and local exporters to track the standards of durians. It uses big data analytics and allows consumers to check details like authenticity and logistics data by scanning the barcode on the fruits. The agency plans to roll it out to a wider range of produce after testing initial reception.

4. Philippines

rice terrace

Philippines has teamed up with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to use drones to scope out where agricultural land is most vulnerable to natural disasters. The government will use this to better prepare for disasters and adapt agricultural plans accordingly.

The drones, equipped with GPS systems and cameras, will provide rich spatial data and maps. The data gathered can provide information on crop assessments and help the public sector decide on the most strategic location to build infrastructure projects like irrigation and storage facilities.

Besides this, the country is also tapping into satellites to help forecast weather conditions, annual rice yield and gather data on pest attacks. With two satellites launched in 2016, daily information collected will be fed to an agricultural information hub. Data and analysis will then be disseminated to crop and climate experts, aiding government agencies in decision-making and farming.

5. South Korea

Sejong City is encouraging startups to develop smart farming solutions, in a joint collaboration between the ICT ministry and SK group, a large conglomerate in the country.

SK group first tested its tools in Yeondong-myeon, a village in Sejong. Farmers collected real-time data on their phones, through temperature and humidity sensors, and surveillance cameras in greenhouses and farms. This monitoring system saved them travel time, and as a result the ICT ministry saw productivity efficiency rise by 23 percent, according to the Korea Herald.

The Sejong centre also has a store, where farmers can sell their products directly without third party vendors and in small volumes. They can check sales and inventory in real-time with their smartphones, allowing them to plan for shipments and planting.

“Now is the time when Korea’s agriculture industry and rural communities need to change their paradigms,” said Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. “The Sejong Center will become the main place for start-ups doing business with ICT-enabled smart agriculture.”

6. Thailand

Precision farming with targeting farming of crops
Precision farming with targeting farming of crops

Thailand is piloting the use of big data analytics in farming. “The Ministry of Agriculture wants data to help them provide solutions to farmers,” Sak Segkhoonthod, Chief Executive of Thailand’s E-Government Agency told GovInsider. The ministry can then advice farmers on what types of crops to harvest to ensure the stability of food prices.

39 percent of the country’s population works in agriculture, and it is the main source of domestic income for citizens, according to IDC, a market research company. The government’s focus on smart farming policies has since driven IT spending in the sector to 7.02 percent , it added.

In Mahidol University, Dr Teerakiat Kerdchaoen and his team are looking into precision farming – tech that can help farmers reduce wastage in agriculture. So far, he has worked on drones that monitor crop conditions, ground robots that gauge the nutrients in the soil, and a weather forecast system to inform farmers on weather changes. The approach can reduce the cost of farming and decrease the impact on the environment – slashing use of chemicals.

Countries in the region are boosting their farming manpower with robots, drones and sensors; it’s widespread, and getting increasingly popular in the industry. It’s healthier to think of them as helpers, rather than threats to manual jobs – after all, they work so we can reap the fruits of their labour.