Serbian farmers now have a new best friend, called Lala. Lala has the ability to collect data and immediately analyse the chemical properties of any soil sample, and then to archive it for farmers to use. Lala is a robot or, as its inventors at the BioSense Institute in Serbia like to call it, an Agrobot. Professor Vesna Bengin from the institute explains that one of the best ways to optimise agricultural production is to give each plant or part of a plot of land the exact amount of nutrition needed. “The starting point for this is observation of differences that exist in the soil in different parts of a plot, and this is where our robotic platform – Agrobot Lala – steps in, providing accurate and precise information,” she says.
Adapted for agricultural applications and equipped with a system for sampling and analysing the soil, Lala moves along a predefined path within a plot, samples the soil, immediately analyses it, and records georeferenced measurement results. As a result, Lala delivers a multi-layered map on which farmers can base decisions regarding sowing, watering, and the application of fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides in order to optimise production. “We are glad to be a part of the agricultural revolution and to see robots, drones and young people with laptops in Serbian fields”, says Professor Bengin.
Founded in 2015, the BioSense Research and Development Institute for IT in biosystems is a pioneer in the digital transformation of agriculture in Serbia. Professor Bengin is the co-founder of the institute. She explains that as a child, she had heard many times that the land in Vojvodina, the northern region of Serbia, is so fertile that it could feed all Europe. But she also saw that this was not the case. Likewise, as an adult it seemed absurd to her to engage in very complex scientific research where results stay in the pages of scientific journals or books. “As an engineer, I believed that science had to respond to the needs of society and improve the quality of people’s lives, and I reflected a lot on how to steer our research towards that goal,” says Professor Bengin.
This led to the idea of a scientific institute as a knowledge base that farmers, businesses, and policymakers could turn to in order to solve problems in the field. Professor Bengin explains that there were administrative, financial, and interpersonal challenges on the way to achieving this – and that her ambitions would probably have been short-lived if it were not for the EU’s funding of science, first through the FP7 programme and later through Horizon 2020. “Project by project, as if it were brick by brick, we built a path that has led us to being recognised today as a global leader in the digital transformation of agriculture,” says Professor Bengin.
Professor Bengin is the coordinator of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 ANTARES project which supports the BioSense Institute in evolving into a market-oriented European centre of research excellence. “Before ANTARES, we were only able to dream – to dream about building a serious scientific research centre in Serbia, similar to those we saw abroad; we dreamed about retaining our best students instead of watching them leave the country. We had a vision of farmers being able to live by their work with dignity. ANTARES helped us turn these dreams into a reality,” says Professor Bengin.
Today, BioSense has a team of about 140 electrical engineers, programmers, biochemists, physicists, biologists, and agronomists. Employment decisions are made solely based on excellence and half of the team are women. Professor Bengin explains that women are necessary to science. “They approach solving any scientific challenge in a specific manner, complementary to that of their male colleagues. As an electrical engineer, I really don’t believe that there are male and female professions”. She urges, “I sincerely believe that girls should listen to themselves, follow their desires and interests, and create new patterns of behaviour, in which they will not follow male role models but create their own authentic success stories”.
About the project
With a budget of almost €30 million, ANTARES is the largest research project ever funded by the European Union in the Republic of Serbia. The project is supported by the participation of the Serbian Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development who provide both institutional and legislative support, as well co-financing of €14 million. ANTARES is co-funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.
Photo credits: BioSense Institute
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