#DigitAg: boosting agriculture through training and digital innovation

The goal of the new Convergences Institute #DigitAg project is to encourage the development of digital agriculture and businesses in France and developing countries through research, training and knowledge transfers. The Institute intends to be the global benchmark for digital agriculture by 2023. A winner with 5 proposals put forward for the first call for projects by the ANR “Convergences Institutes,” #DigitAg brings together 4 research organizations, 4 centers of higher education, 8 investment for the future structures and 8 businesses. Based in Montpellier, the group also has two satellite sites in Toulouse and Rennes. It was officially launched on January 1, 2017 with a €9.9M 7-year grant from ANR.

#DigitAg is primarily “an incredible opportunity to research differently, by confronting different perspectives, different disciplines and thereby encouraging scientific, educational and technological innovation,” explains Véronique Bellon Maurel, Director of the Environmental Technologies Department at Irstea and Director of #DigitAg. She believes this is the true purpose of the Investments for the Future program’s new project and is asking her teams to break away from “business as usual.”

How? By placing interdisciplinarity and training at the heart of the project.

Digital agriculture in 8 challenges

Interdisciplinarity is clearly the watchword for this project. Bringing together over 300 researchers, economists, agricultural scientists, computer scientists and sociologists from 25 research units, #DigitAg will focus on 2 key social and economic challenges to digital agriculture. These have been further divided into 8 challenges involving researchers from all disciplines:

  • Optimizing agricultural production by limiting environmental impacts, divided into 4 challenges: 1 - Supporting agroecology, 2 - Adapting varieties to the environment and markets, 3 - Protecting crops, 4 - Farming animals sustainably.
  • Incorporating digital agriculture into wider society, divided into 4 challenges that look at the way in which ICT will: 1 - Revolutionize the advice and services provided to farmers, 2 - Facilitate the integration of agriculture into regions, 3 - Help agriculture get more out of the value chain, 4 - Support agricultural development in developing countries.

These challenges will be addressed by multidisciplinary working groups that will identify important research questions that are key to defining new and bold dissertation subjects that will shake up the discipline. Developing clusters of dissertations on similar topics but from different approaches and disciplines will help to provide greater clarity on a field of capital importance to society.

Specifically, developing these clusters of dissertations through various disciplines and ensuring dialogue between these dissertations will lead to original research questions that will elucidate fundamental issues for society. For example, the challenge of “protecting crops” could lead to a variety of questions such as how to detect illnesses early (requiring research into sensors) or how to change insurance systems providing crop insurance using ICTs. These are just two examples of research questions for which the potential positive applications are far-reaching.

Teaching and students are a central part of this project

In order to lead innovation and create a united structure, #DigitAg is focusing on students and young researchers from France and abroad: “They are a central part of the process. We hope they will be curious, motivated and capable of building bridges between the different laboratories and structures that make up #DigitAg, promoting interdisciplinarity and a new, more open type of research,” explains Véronique Bellon Maurel. With a minimum of 150 Master-level grants, 56 PhD level grants and 18 post-doctoral years on offer, #DigitAg is in an excellent position to attract international post-graduate and doctoral students.

Moreover, in order to help complete dissertation projects and transform their results into demonstrators, a team of IT developers (120 person-months) will be recruited and linked to the Graduate School.

Our goal is to create a Graduate School in Digital Architecture by 2019. Inspired by the British model, this new type of doctoral school will incorporate all Master’s and doctorate level teaching, from initial training programs to vocational training and PhDs. This is a revolutionary concept, given the clear separation that currently exists in France between Master and Doctorate levels, as noted by Marie Laure Navas (Deputy Director for Training and Scientific Policy, Montpellier SupAgro). No less than 20 Masters, including 4 new pathways, have been planned.

Links to companies are also key to the teaching plan. The 8 partner companies will provide courses and around fifty grants for Master-level internships, which will take place in their facilities. The AgroTIC Business Chair is also involved in the program and brings with it 23 companies, providing another link between the manufacturing industry and students.

Another innovation is the Mas Numérique, a demonstration platform for digital agriculture. The project is supported by 4 corporate sponsors (SMAG, Vivelys, Pera-Pellenc, ITK) and 8 corporate partners (TerraNIS, Agriscope, SIKA, Force A, ICV, Bayer, GéoCarta, Cap 2020, Axe Environnement), who will all provide equipment. The Montpellier SupAgro Foundation will open the farm in November 2017 on the Chapitre estate in Villeneuve-les-Maguelone near Montpellier. The farm will not only be a showcase for companies but also a unique teaching tool, as it will be open to students. Students and teachers will benefit from new facilities with the latest equipment for experiments while companies will benefit from a showroom and marketing display area.

Finally, an additional link between researchers and companies is the Observatory of Uses for Digital Agriculture, one of the first projects completed by #DigitAg and the AgroTIC Chair. This observatory will provide an overview (scorecard and assessment of obstacles to adopting digital technologies and potential drivers). Currently, the observatory is studying the use of remote sensing in agriculture.

Upcoming meetings

Upcoming meetings as of now are:

  • June 30, 2017: Inauguration of the #DigitAg Institute
  • July 1-2, 2017: Digital Agriculture Hackathon
  • July 2-6, 2017: European symposium EFITA in Montpellier
  • November 28-30, 2017: Inauguration of Le Mas Numérique
  • 2019: Inauguration of the Graduate School

To follow the project, please see www.hdigitag.fr or Twitter @DigitAgLab

For more information