The National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (Nectec) has begun what it admits is the most challenging of its current flagship projects.
It is called "Smart Farm", and its aim is to lift the agricultural sector's contribution to Thailand's gross domestic product (GDP) from the present 9 per cent to a "distinguished and sustainable" figure in the future.
Smart farm is one of the centre's three flagship projects. The others are Digitize Thailand and Smart Health.
Nectec director Pansak Siriruchatapong said the goal of Smart Farm was to develop precision agriculture and the ability to forecast agricultural planning, to help increase the agricultural sector's contribution to GDP.
According to the National Economic and Social Development Board, agriculture is the country's third most important contributor to GDP, after the services sector, which contributes about 52 per cent and the manufacturing sector, which contributes about 39 per cent. In its distant third place, agriculture contributes only 9 per cent of GDP but it has the second-largest number of people employed, at 39 per cent of the country's total. The service sector has the largest number of employees, with 43 per cent and the manufacturing sector, about 18 per cent.
"There is a big gap between the number of labourers and the total contribution of the agriculture sector. The challenge is how to use technologies and knowledge to improve productivity in this sector, in terms of quantity and quality," Pansak said.
In the first three years, the project will aim to increase agricultural productivity by applying knowledge and technology at farm level, since these are the industry's production units. Later, Nectec will turn its focus to the agricultural supply chain and logistics.
"Smart farm is the most challenging of the three flagships as the project involves a lot more people, most of whom are unfamiliar with technology and lack the ability to access information," he said.
Smart Farm will concentrate on four main agricultural products: rice, cassava, rubber and sugar cane. To make these operations into "smart farms", Nectec has two main plans: providing research and development, especially the supply of basic field-level sensors capable of reading pH (soil acidity or alkalinity), humidity and temperature; and developing a database of agricultural knowledge, then providing farmers with access to it.
In supplying equipment to farmers, Nectec will work with its sister centres under the National Science and Technology Development Centre, including Biotec, MTEC, and Nanotec.
Partnerships will also be employed in developing a digital archive of agricultural knowledge and giving access to farmers.
Recently, Nectec signed a memorandum of understanding with the Agricultural Land Reform Office (Alro), which is responsible for about 1 million rai of rice-farming land, or about 10 per cent of Thailand's total rice-production area. Under the agreement, smart-farm initiatives will be introduced to this area through a co-managed project called "Alro Cyber Brain".
One of its main aims will be the development of "trailer-made fertiliser" for each of the farms, with different formulas according to the needs of the soil.
Farmers will be offered sensors to evaluate the status of the main plant nutrients, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), in their farm's soil. They will then be able to send the result by mobile phone short message service to Alro's server and a fertiliser will be formulated specifically for their farm.
"We have begun with rice farms in Ayutthaya province and will expand to other rice farms under Alro's responsibility around the country. We will develop similar partnerships with other organisations and clusters. Although this may seem to be a fragmentary strategy, these fragmented collaborations will eventually be integrated like a jigsaw.
"This flagship project is hard work, requiring a lot of time, effort and collaboration," Pansak said.
It is hoped the development of farm-specific fertilisers will help farmers save up to Bt500 per rai. In the 1 million rai under Alro's responsibility, the "trailer-made fertilisers" will help save Bt500 million per rice crop.