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At the Vanguard of High-tech Agriculture
Applying emerging technologies to agriculture can not only make up for labor shortages, but also create huge business opportunities. Professor Nen-Fu Huang, dean of the College of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is leading a team developing various technologies used in “precision agriculture,” including drones, satellite aerial photography, and image analysis, which together can be used to determine the best harvesting period and accurately predict the size of the harvest. Their technologies have been successfully tried out in Pingtung, Yilan, Tainan, and Yunlin, with such crops as dragon fruit, spring onion, jujube, and coffee. Moreover, NTHU has recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Taiwan-ASEAN Business Council (TABC) to introduce this cutting-edge agricultural technology to various ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and India.
 
Agricultural Diplomacy
 
NTHU President Hocheng Hong recently signed the memorandum of cooperation with TABC President Lu Risheng. The signing ceremony was attended by Robert James Bintaryo, the head of the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office in Taipei, Sridharan Madhusudhanan, Director General of the India-Taipei Association, Tran Duy Hai, Representative of the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, and Datuk Adeline Leong, President of the Malaysian Friendship and Trade Centre. Also present were Chang San-Cheng, the honorary President of the TABC, Yu-Chin Hsu, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Huang Chin-Cheng and the deputy chairman of the Council of Agriculture and Legislators Su Chih-Feng and Hsu Yu-Jen.
 
During the ceremony Hocheng said that combining technology with agriculture helps conserve limited resources such as land and water while increase management efficiency, and that the farmer of the future will need to be familiar with these developments. He added that NTHU is looking forward to making these new technologies available to farmers throughout Asia.
 
According to President Lu, the combined population of India and the ten member states of ASEAN (Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia) is around 2 billion people, over half of whom are engaged in farming. Moreover, these nations have ample arable land, making the region well suited for large-scale production, and this is why the TABC is eager to promote the latest agricultural technology.
 
Making Agriculture More Efficient
 
Huang said that the agricultural technologies being developed by his team include sensors which collect data on soil moisture, soil conductance, air temperature and humidity, light intensity, water pH, and carbon dioxide, and then instantly transmit the data back to the farmer, who uses artificial intelligence (AI) and remote control technology to automatically make whatever adjustments may be necessary, from watering and applying fertilizer, to turning on lights or fans. All this saves manpower and material, while improving quality and output.
 
By integrating such tools as the Internet of Things, AI, data analysis, and drones, Huang’s team has been cooperating with agricultural experts and technology companies to propose comprehensive solutions for a number of domestic farms producing high-value crops. For example, ordinary dragon fruit sells for about NT$40 per piece, but monarch dragon fruit produced with precision agriculture can sell for as much as NT$200 per piece on the international produce market.
 
A Man with a Mission
 
Huang and his wife grew up in Rueisuei, Hualian, where his wife’s parents still grow pomelos and coffee beans. Because he returns home every year to help with the farm work, he knows well the many difficulties faced by Taiwan’s aging farmers, such as typhoons, labor shortages, and low returns. Thus it was with a strong sense of mission that Huang went about setting up his research team two years ago.
 
Farmers have to closely monitor the growth of their crops and constantly check for the presence of pests and diseases. Traditionally, these were all done on foot, but precision farming makes it possible to monitor the fields by using drones, satellites, and fixed cameras. For example, the steep terrain of the coffee plantations in Gukeng, Yunlin makes it quite difficult to keep close watch on the growth of the coffee beans. But now it’s possible to send a drone to take photos and send back the data which the farmer can use to instantly determine the optimal time for harvesting.
 
Drone-assisted Agriculture
 
Huang’s team has assisted dragon fruit farmers to send drones to take pictures of the blossoms, which are then processed using AI to accurately predict the output and harvest date. This allows the farmers to optimize their plans for storage, sales, and shipping. Liu Shichuan, owner of the Monarch Dragon Fruit Farm in Pingtung County, said that since the rainy summer in southern Taiwan makes it difficult to grow dragon fruit, he switched to a winter crop, but had to install artificial lighting to supplement the weak sunshine during the winter. Following the switch, he had to inspect his 26-acre orchard every night, and this took two hours, even with the help of a motorcycle. But by using a drone he can now perform the same task in a mere 20 minutes. Best of all, the price of dragon fruit grown in winter is twice as high as that grown in summer.
 
Less Input and Higher Value
 
Wu Wenhui, the founder of Hannong Organic Farm, set up a produce cooperative of more than 300 guava, wax apple, and litchi farmers in eastern and southern Taiwan. Wu said that each crop needs different nutrients at different stages of growth, and that photographs taken by a drone allows the farmer to use the appearance of the crop to determine what kind of fertilizer should be applied and when to apply it.   Wu elaborated with an example. If a dragon fruit farmer receives an order for 1,200 kilograms to be shipped 15 days later, he can use photographs made by a drone to easily determine how much fertilizer is required to fill the order, and which area to harvest first. Doing things this way saves 15 percent on the cost of labor and fertilizer, and by improving the quality of the fruit, the crop can be sold at a 15% higher price.
 

Right to left: Nen-Fu Huang, Hocheng Hong, Lu Risheng, and Wu Wenhui

Right to left: Nen-Fu Huang, Hocheng Hong, Lu Risheng, and Wu Wenhui


NTHU President Hocheng Hong and TABC President Lu Risheng displaying the memorandum of cooperation.

NTHU President Hocheng Hong and TABC President Lu Risheng displaying the memorandum of cooperation.


VIPs at the Taiwan Smart Agriculture Partnership with ASEAN & India Forum.

VIPs at the Taiwan Smart Agriculture Partnership with ASEAN & India Forum.


Nen-Fu Huang addressing the Forum.

Nen-Fu Huang addressing the Forum.


A dragon fruit orchard at night.

A dragon fruit orchard at night.


A dragon fruit orchard at night photographed by a drone.

A dragon fruit orchard at night photographed by a drone.


A studious monarch dragon fruit grown using precision agriculture.

A studious monarch dragon fruit grown using precision agriculture.

 

 

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