Kubota Innovation Center Europe: Joint innovation in smart agriculture
The Japanese specialist in agricultural and construction machinery, Kubota, recently opened a European Innovation Center satellite office at Wageningen Campus in the brand new Plus Ultra-II building. A logical step, according to Peter van der Vlugt, General Manager of the Kubota Innovation Center Europe: “We believe open innovation in smart agriculture will be key to solving global issues.”
Kubota develops and manufactures a broad portfolio of innovative equipment for the agriculture sector: from tractors and tillage equipment to harvesters and robotics, for both wet and dry farming, at all scales. Since the early 2000s, via its daughter company the Kverneland Group, a long-standing, collaborative relationship with Wageningen University & Research has been in place. Today, Kubota is closely involved with Wageningen University & Research in several Dutch Topsector (key areas for innovation in the Netherlands) and European research projects. “We aim to strengthen this collaboration and participate in even more partnerships, with scientists, but also with young and innovative entrepreneurs,” says Van der Vlugt.
Kubota is strongly committed to expanding its knowledge in the fields of digitalization, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and robotics. The company also focuses on new cropping systems and cultivation practices. “These days, as a large enterprise, you can’t do everything yourself; the key is collaboration and partnering. Open innovation, working and sharing with partners and investing in startups will allow us to jointly develop the smart, innovative solutions needed to solve current and future challenges in agriculture.”
There is no shortage of challenges: from climate change and loss of biodiversity, to decreasing soil quality and an impending shortage of farmers. “Some areas, particularly Southern Europe but, more recently even here in the Netherlands, are struggling with increasing drought, whereas others are dealing with extreme rainfall. In other words weather extremes are becoming more common. In particular, where the soil is compacted, water will not drain away, making it more difficult to cultivate the fields and negatively impacting the growth of crops,” underlines Van der Vlugt.
Soil compaction is an increasing problem in many regions of the world, due to years of intensive agriculture; large tractors and equipment running along the same tire tracks year after year, compressing the soil. “Therefore we strongly believe that by using smaller sized equipment, and more autonomous and robotics equipment this problem can be alleviated. Kubota has always been a strong player in smaller size tractors and machinery and has considerable market share. We will continue to expand this sector in the future, focusing on fully autonomous systems and services.
Then there is the challenge of ensuring sufficient food production with an impending shortage of farmers. “In Japan, farmers are, on average, 67 years old, and it is difficult to find successors among younger generations,” says Van der Vlugt. “The Japanese government is trying to solve this issue by stimulating automation, such as the use of drones, robot platforms, autonomous tractors and decision-support software.” What is happening in Japan today might happen in Europe and the USA tomorrow, as the percentage of older people in the population is increasing, while the farming profession is attracting fewer and fewer young people.
The situation calls for precision agriculture and working at a smaller scale, according to Van der Vlugt. “Imagine the use of a series of self-navigating tillage and crop-care robots and smaller autonomous harvesting machines, as an alternative to heavy tractors and today’s large harvesting machines.” he illustrates. Other examples include the development of equipment for mixed-cropping approaches, that helps preserve biodiversity and avoid plant plagues, and the development of weather-forecast and yield-prediction models. “We want to investigate which applications are most effective, whether they are welcome in the market and which business models fit best, such as payment per use rather than purchase.”
Wageningen provides the ideal base for this kind of research, says Van der Vlugt. “Wageningen University & Research is the number one agriculture university in the world; internationally they are highly regarded and we have maintained a close relationship with them for many years now.”
Wageningen University & Research, a one-hour drive from Kubota’s European headquarters in Nieuw-Vennep, also has significant expertise in digitalization and sensor technology, knowledge that has become crucial to precision agriculture. “Imagine advanced cameras in the fields, or on tillage equipment, that examine the crop and soil and collect data for decision-support systems. Guiding choices such as which fertilizer to use, whether irrigation is needed and what could be the optimal harvest time.”
Inspirational startup community
Moreover, the Foodvalley ecosystem boasts an inspirational startup community, powered by BOX, Foodvalley NL, ScaleUpNation, Startlife and Wageningen Campus. “We want to be closely involved in this ecosystem and this is only possible when we have a physical presence,” says Van der Vlugt.
The General Manager is working one to two days a week in Kubota’s satellite office in the brand new Plus Ultra-II building, which offers room for both startups and established companies. “We also have a soil scientist working full-time with us within the Wageningen Plant Sciences Group. He coordinates projects and guides (master) students in Kubota internships.”
Some examples of research projects that are ongoing, or have just kicked off, include PF 4.0 (Precision Farming 4.0) researching the ‘data position’ of growers and future demands for data sharing; the Synergia project - with Use Case AGROS - and the Handsfree Robotics Topsector project. The Robotics project aims to research and develop fully autonomous Robotic Weeding and Crop-care systems.
Much to offer
Van der Vlugt is looking to the future with ambition and excitement. “In the cultivation of high-value crops, like fruit and vegetables and viticulture – all relatively labor intensive – precision agriculture has much to offer, with much opportunity for development in these crop segments”, he says. “With our knowledge and expertise, our presence in Wageningen, and our open-minded perspective on innovation, I am sure we are on the cusp of many new innovations and startups.”
Kubota – established in 1890 as a foundry, producing castings for weighing equipment and everyday items – has developed into a multinational with 42,000 employees worldwide. The company is organized into the operating divisions Farm machinery, Construction equipment, Engines and Water (according to the company’s guiding principles, Food, Water and the Environment) – with each manufacturing a broad portfolio of equipment for farm equipment and crop cultivation, water management and the construction sector. In 2012, Kubota, building on their strong track record in the cultivation of rice and other types of wet farming, acquired the Kverneland Group, a specialist in high-tech equipment for dry farming.
Source: Foodvalley NL