From dates to drones: meet Jeff Schell scholar Alwin Hopf

Alwin Hopf is a 24-year old student from Germany who has just completed university placements in France and Saudi Arabia, funded by the Bayer Jeff Schell Scholarship for Agricultural Science. We caught up with him to learn about his research – and how digital technology is transforming farming in the Middle-East.

I don’t come from a farming background, but I’ve always been passionate about nature. Farming piqued my interest when I travelled to New Zealand after graduating from high school. There I worked on several farms, helping out with fruit harvests, transporting them to market. That got me interested in agriculture and when I returned to Germany, I decided to study Horticulture Sciences. I realized agriculture was an area where I could contribute to solving some of society’s biggest challenges – it lies at the heart of many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

I wanted to focus on digital farming during my final year of undergraduate studies, and I found out about the programs run by Montpellier SupAgro in France and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. Knowing that I wanted to gain an understanding of how digital farming operates in different cultural contexts, I applied to the Bayer Jeff Schell Scholarship program to support me with this. In France, the study of precision agriculture was very theoretical and classroom-based, which was useful for building up knowledge. But in Saudi Arabia, I was out in the field learning about challenges and how to solve them in a very practical, hands-on way. In fact, I often found myself out on plantations attempting to communicate with local farmers in broken Arabic – a challenge when hello really was the limit!

My work in Saudi Arabia focused on using hyperspectral cameras mounted on drones to survey date palm plantations. Dates are a staple food in Saudi Arabia, as the country is the third-biggest producer of date fruits worldwide. The challenge for farmers is to monitor each palm individually. Usually they have to rely on laborious manual inspection by a team of specially-trained staff. But the trees can be up to 15 meters high and there can be as many as 40,000 on a large plantation.

The human eye perceives only red, blue and green wavelengths of light. But hyperspectral cameras can capture information from many hundred bands. And when a plant is suffering from a lack of water or nutrients, it stops producing certain pigments. This means it reflects the sunlight in a slightly different way and appears to change color. The changes can be very subtle and invisible to the human eye - but a hyperspectral camera can detect them.

The application is very new and there’s still a lot of research to be done to make it practicable. But it principle it means that, when any single plant shows signs of being unhealthy, farmers can act before it’s too late.

Data-driven precision farming has a lot of potential. It allows farmers to manage their land and crops more efficiently, while also providing the agricultural industry with valuable information about production around the world. Technology can also help increase the level of transparency and traceability across food supply chains. At the same time, it needs to be supported by socio-economic investment - some issues can’t be solved with a new piece of equipment.

For anyone thinking about applying for the Jeff Schell Scholarship, I’d say the key is to have a clear, precise idea of your project in mind. Then go for it! The application process was very straight-forward, and flexible in terms of what you can work on and where you can go. I gained a broad perspective on digital farming, and it’s really helped me to develop my skills in a specific research area. This autumn I’m starting graduate studies in Agriculture and Biological Engineering in Florida, USA. While I’m moving away from date farming, I plan to stay in the precision agriculture field and focus on crop modelling: i.e. how algorithms can predict crop outcomes, and the impact of climate changes and weather risks. This is hugely important for global food security. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll end up working, but I want it to be somewhere I can make an impact.

Do you have an idea that could help provide nutritious, safe food for the world? If you’re keen to study abroad next year, the Bayer Foundations are looking for their next cohort of applicants for the Jeff Schell Scholarship. The deadline for applications is 24 July and you can find more information here.


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