Research into enabling technologies generates solutions and companies in agriculture

Intense transformation of agro-industrial processes is one of the focuses of Embrapa's multidisciplinary teams

27.04.2023 | 14:04 (UTC -3)
Intense transformation of agro-industrial processes is one of the focuses of Embrapa's multidisciplinary teams; Photo: Embrapa Disclosure 
Intense transformation of agro-industrial processes is one of the focuses of Embrapa's multidisciplinary teams; Photo: Embrapa Disclosure 

Agriculture, like other sectors of the economy, is intensely associated with the digital revolution and its impacts on production processes, which also include connectivity for the more efficient use of inputs and the generation, evaluation and optimization of integrated production systems, more sustainable. Automation for the new challenges of so-called digital agriculture has been one of the focuses of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on April 26th.

The search for these results involves advanced technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), sensors, autonomous vehicles, robotics, cloud computing and big data; 5G technologies, virtual reality, augmented reality, high-resolution 3D printing and the use of blockchain technology. Digital agriculture is implemented as a tool for rural management and integration of producers with consumers based on reliable and robust measures, a fundamental role of instrumentation.

The revolution that marks agriculture today also transformed the history of one of the Company's research centers: Embrapa Instrumentação, located in São Carlos-SP, which emerged in 1984, as a research support unit. Initially formed by physicists and engineers, it had a well-defined mission right from its creation: to carry out maintenance on the entire Company's equipment (mostly imported), at a time when manufacturers sent professionals from abroad to carry out repairs, which generated high dollar-based costs. Over the years, professionals from the Company's units across the country were trained, generating savings in financial resources. Later, it became a research center until it became a national center.

New skills were added in the areas of chemistry, materials engineering and other areas of exact sciences, combined with the knowledge of agronomists and veterinarians, in a multidisciplinary approach. It is about producing innovations in instruments, sensors, methodologies and materials, to contribute to increasing the productivity and sustainability of agribusiness.

Over the years, technological solutions based on scientific knowledge and rigor were developed, aligned with market needs, which served different production chains, with impacts on rural producers, private sector partners and consumers.

Strategic importance

Agribusiness is going through a moment of strong demand for productivity and environmental sustainability. Therefore, it is inevitable that agricultural input companies (machines, sensors, fertilizers, seeds, etc.), farms, cooperatives and the agroindustry are also undergoing intense transformation, with great technological incorporation into their processes.

Embrapa Instrumentação has been strongly active in themes that resulted in the creation of three multi-user national laboratories (out of the nine existing throughout Brazil): National Nanotechnology Laboratory for Agribusiness (LNNA), National Reference Laboratory for Precision Agriculture (Lanapre) and National Agro-Photonics Laboratory (Lanaf).

The Research Center, located in a national innovation hub, operates in seven of the ten enabling technologies listed by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation: nanotechnology, photonics, biotechnology, advanced materials, artificial intelligence, internet of things (IoT) and robotics.

Due to this characteristic, the creation of the EMBRAPII ITECHAgro Unit - “Integration of Enabling Technologies in Agribusiness” was approved at the end of 2022, with the following scope: advanced materials and nanotechnological and biotechnological inputs for agribusiness; photonic sensors, equipment and methodologies integrated with IoT for precision and digital agriculture; technologies for product quality control and automation integrated with artificial intelligence applied to the agribusiness.

The Embrapii ITECHAgro unit should be a point of convergence between demands, both from producers who look to Embrapa for solutions to innovate within an increasingly digital agriculture, concerned with food security and the environment, as well as from industries looking of solutions to develop innovations for agribusiness.

The expectation is to increase operations and encourage spin-offs (companies that emerge from another) and startups, work with deep techs (startups based on complex technologies) based on the application and integration of these enabling technologies to make agribusiness more competitive internationally and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Partnerships can also be leveraged with small, medium and large companies, national and multinational, through the complementarity of expertise and infrastructure, to generate competitive and innovative products and processes.

Impact technologies generated by Embrapa Instrumentação

  • The Ultrasound Pregnancy Detector for Cattle and Horses was the first licensed technology, in 1989, with more than six thousand devices sold in all Brazilian states and in 12 Latin American countries. The portable and affordable equipment allows you to quickly diagnose pregnancy in the field, using ultrasound, for the appropriate management of cows and mares.
  • Biodigestor Septic Tank has more than 12 thousand units installed throughout the Brazilian territory by partners. It was awarded by the Banco do Brasil Foundation and used as a reference in public policy in the federal government's Minha Casa, Minha Vida Rural Program. It treats toilet sewage (water containing human urine and feces), replacing the so-called “black septic tank”. It does not generate unpleasant odors, prevents the breeding of rats, flies and cockroaches, in addition to preventing soil and water contamination, with an impact on human health. It is easy to install, affordable and also produces an effluent that can be used in the soil as fertilizer (recommended for perennial plants).
  • The SpecFIT is national equipment, almost 50% cheaper than similar imported ones. It is used on a large scale by the palm oil extraction industries located in Pará and is already present in 23 markets in South America, Central America, Europe and Southeast Asia. Performs analysis of foods (processed or fresh) such as fruits, beef, olive oil, wine, quickly and non-destructively, using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. The SpecFIT HR100 is robust, portable, easy to calibrate, requires minimal maintenance and does not require specialized labor.
  • The carnauba wax Nanoemulsion is intended for the fruit and vegetable market and is made available via licensing agreement. It is being sold in Brazil and in countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia. The emulsion with nanometric particles (invisible to the human eye) based on carnauba wax, for coating table fruits (papaya, orange, mango, tangerine, among others), can extend the life of the fruits by 10 to 15 days compared to to the conventional method, it helps maintain quality and reduce post-harvest losses of these products. Complies with the determinations of the National Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa).
  • AGLIBS, a pioneer in Brazil, marks the beginning of a radical innovation in soil analysis. It is available on the market via licensing and has already been adopted in 17 Brazilian states. It allows analyzing 1.200 soil samples per day and generating maps of carbon, fertility, pH and soil texture in precision agriculture management, with lower cost and time compared to chemical analyzes and without generating waste. It is currently included in an artificial intelligence platform for agronomic recommendations on soil fertility and sustainable carbon management for rural producers. The system uses LIBS (a type of laser), the same technique that NASA used in robots to assess the soil on Mars, and which received international certification in 2022.

Challenges in different sectors

Other examples that mark the trajectory of Embrapa Instrumentação, whose impact is priced, are linked to institutional partners in different parts of Brazil. Are they:

  • The Alternative method for harvesting coffee in mountainous regions was developed based on demand made by Cooxupé (Cooperativa Regional de Cafeicultores em Guaxupé Ltda). It benefited around 113 harvesters in the 2022 harvest and generated an impact of R$2 billion on the harvest using backpack harvesting equipment.
  • The Soil Diagnosis for controlling pathogens in cotton in Mato Grosso was developed in partnership with the Instituto Matogrossense do Algodão (IMAmt). The recommendations generated by the research and used by cotton farmers increased productivity by around 10%; for each adopter, it is estimated that there was an economic gain of around R$984,00 per hectare of cotton cultivated in 2022.

Furthermore, the Research Center team has been working in recent years with technologies for different production chains. Check out examples below, by sector:

  • Aquaculture - Multiparameter probe for assessing water quality;
  • Fruits and Vegetables - Traceability and monitoring system for the degree of fruit ripeness; Nanocomposite hydrogel (tomato and pepper);
  • Milk – ProbeMilk;
  • Coffee - CoffeeClass - Intelligent system for measuring the overall quality of roasted and ground coffee;
  • Grape - Precision viticulture for the production of winter wines in the Southeast Region;
  • Soy – Classification of the quality of soybeans for international trade;
  • Citrus – Diagnosis of Greening (HLB) in citrus plantations.
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