Swiss startup develops cameras that “talk” to plants

Yosef Akhtman at the headquarters of his company Gamaya in Morges.

Gamaya promises to revolutionize agriculture around the world. This young Swiss company develops intelligent systems that work with special cameras and drones that allow the farmer to carry out “surgical” interventions in the fields. The main producers of sugarcane and tobacco in Brazil are the first customers.

This content was posted on July 04, 2019 – 11:21

The “front” is a large farm located in the southeastern region of Brazil. Enemy troops land silently on the sugar cane plantation, without anyone noticing. It is a small butterfly of the species Diatraea saccharalis. It lays eggs on the leaves and in a few days the caterpillars penetrate the stem, building galleries in the stems and gradually killing the plants.

The farmer retaliates with a large amount of pesticides. But he doesn’t realize that other, irreducible enemies, have already taken over the land: the bush – the sedge, the Indian grass and the castor bean. Hardy, these plants grow everywhere and compete for nutrients with sugarcane. As for the coup de grace, it comes from dryness; the cane will die of thirst, because it hasn’t rained for weeks.

The images captured by the hyperspectral cameras show different colors generated by the reflection of plants or soil. Data analysis allows knowing the exact situation to the nearest centimeter. gamaya

This scenario, reminiscent of a plague in Egypt, is part of the daily lives of many producers. Even today, the fight against evils is haphazard: pesticides and fertilizers are spread over large areas, hoping to solve the problems. However, these measures do not prevent considerable crop losses and cause pollution. But technology now makes life easier for farmers: information is now arriving via cell phones and the alarm is already sounding.

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How do hyperspectral cameras work?

Hyperspectral cameras capture images using different wavelengths, expanding the spectrum of colors that can be detected by recording wavelengths of light from visible to infrared.

The “spectral signature” of plants varies according to their physiological state. If the plant suffers from a lack of water, nutrients or is attacked by pests, the leaves are affected and begin to reflect a different light.

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“Your crop is in danger,” the app warns. The phone’s screen displays multi-color images taken by drones and satellites. Each color represents a different problem. “In this part of the cultivated area, we noticed that the cane is attacked by an insect that sucks the sap and transmits toxins. The leaves are yellow and the stubble is starting to wilt,” explains Yosef Akhtman, showing the image on the computer.

The Ukrainian has lived in Switzerland since 2011. A graduate in physics and mathematics, with a doctorate in electrical engineering, he was doing research at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne when he discovered that a new system for analyzing data collected by drones, equipped with a hyperspectral camera, could revolutionize agriculture. Four years later, he and other colleagues founded the company Gamaya, which specializes in agronomic intelligence systems.

It looks like science fiction. Computer-guided drones fly over crops and produce images with their hyperspectral cameras. These images, which look like surreal paintings, feature a detailed and multicolored terrain. Each color is analyzed by software capable of analyzing large volumes of data. The information is interpreted by artificial intelligence and presented on the screen. The farmer then has access to a wide range of information, such as plant type, growth stage, hydration level, pests and diseases. He might even know, to the nearest centimeter, where to spread fertilizer.

Yosef Akhtman shows the hyperspectral camera that is attached to the drone to map the crop areas.

The system he developed applies today to soybean, corn and sugarcane plantations. And as a market to present the products, choosing Brazil was a logical decision. “While in Switzerland agriculture is artisanal and family-owned, in Brazil they are large producers, very advanced in digital agriculture. It’s a potential market worth hundreds of millions of dollars,” explains Yosef Akhtman.

However, the use of big data and artificial intelligence in agriculture does not solve all problems. Is it possible to use this technology in other cultures? “The problem is that each of them requires a lot of specific knowledge. Our computer scientists had to become good agronomists in sugarcane or soy. The same must be done if we want to find solutions for oranges or other fruits”, replies Yosef Akhtman. But the young company continues to expand its expertise.

At the end of 2018, Gamaya announced the launch of the TobaccoFit system, aimed exclusively at tobacco growers. Tobacco company Philip Morris uses the app with its suppliers in Brazil. The objective is to control pests such as the tobacco mosaic virus, whose infection causes spots and discoloration on the leaves, harming plant growth.

fight against hunger

Today, the young company employs 35 people at the company’s headquarters in Morges, in the canton of Vaud. English is the working language as most employees are not from Switzerland. “They are Israelis, Iranians, Belgians, Germans, French and even Brazilians”, says Yosef Akhtman. The advantage of being based in Switzerland is the proximity to major research centers such as Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and multinationals such as Nestlé and Philip Morris, whose headquarters are also in the canton of Vaud.

For the young entrepreneur, the future of agriculture lies in the development of new technologies. “It is necessary to increase the efficiency of agriculture to feed a world population that is expected to reach nine billion people in 2050, according to FAO projections”, explains the Ukrainian.

And climate change, which modifies food production capacity, is not the only factor at play. The evolution of the rural world requires new practices. “The number of people involved in agriculture is decreasing all over the world. In the next twenty years, most farms will be fully automated and replaced by robotic machines. And for that, you need autonomous digital agronomy services to tell the tractor what to do,” concludes Yosef Akhtman.

Express Biography

Yosef Akhtman was born in 1976 in Ukraine. In 1990, he emigrated to Israel with his family.

In 2000 he graduated from the Hebrew University in Physics and Mathematics and in 2007 he obtained his PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southhampton. From 2011 to 2015, he was a researcher at the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL).

In January 2015, he founded the company Gamaya, a spin-off from EPFL, that is, a company resulting from a research project.

In 2018, the business magazine Handelszeitung ranks it among the top ten start-ups in Switzerland.

Among the company’s investors are business figures such as Peter Brabeck, former chairman of Nestlé, and the Sandoz family foundation.

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