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Background

The first irrigation system with a brain

Israeli irrigation specialist Netafim recently launched its new precision drip irrigation system NetBeat. The company likes to refer to it as the second revolution in smart (drip) irrigation.

Netafim was established in 1965 in the Kibbutz Hatzerim near Beersheba in the Negev desert in Israel where they tried to grow crops in the desert soil and in 1966 it commercialised the first-generation drip irrigation system. 2 years ago, the company started to develop its new cloud-based solution for smart irrigation that it refers to as the 2nd revolution in drip irrigation. Izhar Gilad, the company’s head of commercial & business development, Digital Farming, says NetBeat is the only irrigation and fertigation management and control system that combines sensing and monitoring, analysis and decision support, as well as automation and control. For this it has an ‘agri-brain’ to follow crop growth and recommend on field specific irrigation and fertigation.

Israeli irrigation specialist Netafim recently launched its new precision drip irrigation system NetBeat. Photo:Netafim
Israeli irrigation specialist Netafim recently launched its new precision drip irrigation system NetBeat. Photo:Netafim

What challenged you to develop the NetBeat system?

“We wanted to develop the next generation precision drip irrigation that incorporates all aspects in one single platform. These aspects do not just include the irrigation system, but also agronomic intelligence, weather information and information from the plants and the soil. These help us to analyse, define and activate strategic irrigation. Since many of these parameters vary during the growing season, we wanted the new platform to be an intelligent self-learning platform, and for that we need artificial intelligence (AI).”

Why is AI crucial?

“First of all, I believe that in future every machine and product will have an AI brain. That will definitely include precision irrigation and therefore we decided to cease the opportunity. We also see the digital revolution affecting the ag-tech sector dramatically, so again, the time is NOW! AI is crucial since it enables a system to calibrate itself. And since there’s nothing more dynamic than crop growth and water availability, we believe that with this technology, it is possible to further improve the precision and ROI of drip irrigation.”

Is the platform proprietary or is it open?

“All hardware, software and crop growth models are Netafim proprietary. We however developed it as an open platform, open to cooperation and partnerships. This is because we want our customers to be able to integrate data from various sources including satellites, drones, seed, fertiliser and crop protection companies and machine manufacturers. Because the system is not only used for water supply, but also for nutrition and crop protection chemicals. We are for example cooperating with Bayer to be able to site specific inject crop protection chemicals in the irrigation system. Such cooperation helps us in empowering agronomists and farmers to be able to improve their businesses.”

How do you see the future of such (farm) management platforms?

“There are many systems available from machine manufacturers, but also from companies like Bayer, BASF and The Climate Corporation, but in (precision) agriculture, there’s no dominant management system yet, like for instance SAP. Maybe one dominant system/supplier will arrive one day. I’m sure that in the global market, 20 or more systems will not survive. I foresee mergers and consolidation and vertically aligned management systems that for instance specialise in irrigation, crop protection etc.”

How do you get NetBeat’s brain started?

“We can ‘feed’ the brain with 50 years of agronomic and hydraulic experience and know-how in drip irrigation and have 150 in-house agronomists. These helped us build crop growth models for many crops and various geographical locations. The dynamic and automatically calibrated models help us to exactly tune the amount of water and nutrition to the plant growth situation. All information and experience has been put to work to teach the NetBeat platform to calibrate itself.”

How will you convince farmers to buy a digital brain?

“I believe that to really get their interest and convince them to make the investment, they need to see proof of four things:

  1. Robust tech that can survive on a functioning farm;
  2. Agronomic know-how that empowers the farmers (who know their crops better than anyone);
  3. Support capabilities to help them make the most of the new tech;
  4. A measurable return on investment, through increased yield and produce quality, and decreased use of resources.

That last point is the most important.”

So ROI is crucial. How do you manage that with AI?

“Let me come back to the required robust tech first. In order to achieve that, we work with two main suppliers and one of them is from the defence industry and that helps us build a reliable and robust platform.

We’ve seen that controlled drip irrigation as a basic level of precision, can save as much as 20 to 50% of water compared to other methods of irrigation including pivots. Another 15-20% can be saved on the monitoring time/workload. We’ve also seen yield improvements, quantity and quality wise, in various crops including rice where flooding is the common ‘irrigation practice’. An example in sugar cane even showed a double yield quantity.

Although we’ve done various trials over the last few years, it’s a bit too early to put numbers on the savings and ROI of the NetBeat system. I’m convinced it will give bigger savings than our existing drip irrigation systems.”

When and where will NetBeat become available?

“It was officially launched 2 weeks ago at Agritech Israel and we will gradually roll out to India, Brazil, Australia, Europe and the United States in 2018. The European launch is at the EIMA in Bologna, Italy from 7-11 November this year.”

What will be the cost of the system?

“The system will require an initial investment fee for the hardware, sensors and the cloud-based platform. For the data processing, the ‘brain’, remote support and updates, we will introduce a basic subscription and an advanced subscription. The price of both subscriptions is not determined yet but will both involve a certain annual fee.”

Name: Izhar Gilad (38)
Function: Head of Commercial & Business Development, Digital Farming at Netafim, an Israeli precision irrigation manufacturer from Tel Aviv. Izhar worked for 10 years in Israel’s high-tech sector before joining Netafim in 2015. As head of product management, he helped shape and develop Netafim NetBeat. He’s one of the speakers at GFIA Europe on 20 & 21 June.

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