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. Hatzerim was one of the first kibbutzim to break away from traditional agriculture and start a business (Netafim). In 1966 the company started to commercialise its first-generation drip irrigation system. The business was also run with two other kibbutzim, Magal and Yiftach, and was merged into one single corporation in 1999. Until today, irrigation is one of the core competences of the firm.
Two years ago, the company started to develop its new NetBeat cloud-based solution for smart irrigation that it refers to as the second revolution in drip irrigation. According to Netafim, NetBeat is the only irrigation and fertigation management and control system that combines sensing & monitoring, analysis & decision support and automation & control. For this it has an ‘agri-brain’ to follow crop growth and recommend on field specific irrigation and fertigation.
We spoke to Izhar Gilad*, the company’s Head of Commercial & Business Development, Digital Farming.
What challenged you to develop the NetBeat system?
We wanted to develop a next generation platform for precision drip irrigation that incorporates all aspects in one single platform. These aspects include not just the irrigation system, but also agronomic intelligence, weather information and forecasts, 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 even every 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 gives the opportunity to a system to calibrate it selves. And since there’s nothing more dynamic then 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 NetBeat as an open platform, open for cooperation and partnerships. This is because we want our customers to be able to integrate data from various sources includes satellites, drones, seed, fertiliser and crop protection companies and machine manufacturers. Since the irrigation 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 a 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’s 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 survive. I foresee mergers and consolidation and vertically aligned management systems that for instance specialise on irrigation, crop protection and more.
How do you get NetBeats 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 to build crop growth models for many, many crops and various geographical locations. The dynamic, and automatic 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 it selves.
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 to early to put numbers on the savings and ROI of the NetBeat system, it I’m convinced it will give bigger savings then our existing drip irrigation systems.
When and where will NetBeat become available?
It was officially launched two 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.
*Izhar Gilad, Age 38 Position: 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 to help drive the digital farming revolution. As Head of Product Management, he helped shape and develop Netafim NetBeat.