The Future of Skills in Israel – the agri-tech sector

Continuing our series of interviews around the Future of Skills in ETF partner countries, we delved into the dynamic agri-tech sector in Israel, a country that combines a history of producing food in a challenging environment and a forward-thinking technology sector. From upstream and downstream of agri-tech research and development, Professor Avital Bechar is director of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at the Volcani Center and head of agricultural robotics and the proximal sensing lab, and Israel Talpaz is the co-founder and CEO of SeeTree, a three-and-a-half-year-old start-up that just received its third round of funding and ($30m) and is present in four countries.

Professor Bechar, what types of agricultural solutions are you working on at the Volcani Center?

As a scientist I’m conducting studies and research on things like early detection of diseases, biotic and abiotic stresses, developing a concept to use robots in agriculture because the agricultural environment is unstructured and so we have to modify and change our thinking about robotics when it comes to agriculture. Also, in some cases developing human/robot collaboration or integrated systems to perform tasks such as selective pruning of fruit trees, melon harvesting, etc.

What do you mean by ‘change our thinking’?

If you look at the natural location of robotics, it is outside the agricultural space, because robots are usually expensive, the environment they are usually working in is very structured – like packing houses, factories – and the product variability is very low because this is the nature of industry. Now, our task is to bring robotics to agriculture, but it is also to modify agriculture a bit to shorten the distance between the natural location of robotics and agriculture.

Can you give me a concrete example of robotics in agriculture?

We are talking about, for instance, a selective weeder in watermelon plots. We developed a specific tool based on high-potential electrostatic currents. We electrify the weeds in a way that is not dangerous for the worker because the energy consumption is very low. It is better for the environment because we are not using any chemicals, and the weed dies and disintegrates into the ground, so it fertilises the soil. To do that we need some kind of robot or manipulator to bring the tool directly to the location. Also, we need to develop an algorithm so we can pinpoint the weeds, and at the end we need to integrate all system components to work together.

What are the implications of such technology on jobs?

It’s taking the hard labour out of agriculture, which is the main drawback from the worker’s point of view. You have to remember that one of the burning issues in agriculture in all Western or first-world countries is that there is not enough manpower willing to do the required tasks. So having a robot to do them is good. But in agriculture, robotic systems often perform better when a human operator is integrated than if it was a fully automated system. So now the workers who pick the apples don’t have to be climbing ladders and be minimum-wage workers, but they can sit in an office and point to where the apples are and operate the system. Although the scales of the workers will remain low, in these systems you need to have basic training or basic understanding of the technology you are working with, or administrating. So, we are talking about different level of skills but also a different working environment. In addition, we are supplying jobs for the manufacturer of robots or autonomous systems.

Is the education system, especially the VET system, ready for the innovations that are coming out, or are companies and farmers having to train their own staff?

In Israel we are seeing a change on several levels. The farmers are becoming more and more educated. We have farmers with Master’s degrees in agronomy, in economics, in engineering, etc. The farmers are like the managers of the farm, so we have to start from the top so that the management level will understand and can cope with this kind of technology. The lower level of workers, the simple workers, will need to have the skills to operate the system. In this case, we are talking about skills at the level of technicians and engineers. Currently there are no institutes or schools to the best of my knowledge in Israel that educate workers for this kind of task in agriculture, but there are schools that train them for this kind of task in industry. So, the shift to agriculture is not so drastic.

If someone was thinking of a career where they would be stimulated and earn a decent living in agriculture, what sort of training and skills should they be looking at?

We are talking about computer technology, automation is going to be a big issue, artificial intelligence, but at the level of operator not developer. If we talk about the manufacturers, they are looking for engineers, PhDs that will develop the systems. This kind of worker is mainly educated in labs such as mine and in universities, learning and developing the new technologies that will be used 10 years from now in agriculture. About half of my graduate students are now working in companies developing equipment for manufacture.

Mr Talpaz, how does the technology you use at SeeTree revolutionalise the job of farming?

We provide actionable data to farmers who grow trees. We use drones, ground vehicles and scouts, all equipped with special cameras to take pictures of all the trees in a high-resolution comprehensive manner, and then analyse it using cutting-edge machine-learning AI capabilities. First, we digitise their farms, because up to now their farms have been analogue. Every tree now becomes a digital entity – we count them, we count the fruit on the trees. And we measure the health status of the trees, so we know if they are stressed, if they have a disease or not, if they are applying the right amount of water, if they have any kind of nutrient deficiency. We put this on a web platform and the farmer sees on his laptop or his mobile phone the situation of his farm ongoing. So, it’s really changing the way that they are farming.

You now employ 140-150 people. Have you found it difficult to find people who come to you with the skills that you need?

It’s not really a problem – I’ll tell you why. What skills do we need here? It’s very multidisciplinary, because we’re not really a software company, we’re a full end-to-end service provider, so you have skills that we need locally in the different areas and the skills that we need here and in our headquarters. Let’s talk about the skills in the local areas: we need drone operators, field scouts and customer success managers. Operating drones is a growing field and a new field, and we see a growing tendency of experts in this field and they’re looking for work. They could be from a hobby background, they could be from the military… less from the universities but we’ll probably see that happening as well.

In Brazil, Chile and the US we started with our own teams from Israel, who trained local people to take over. In South Africa, which is our first partnership, we immediately started with a South African team and we trained them to our specific needs. But they knew how to fly drones already and we just tweaked it to our needs.

And the skills for your base in Israel?

This is where we do the analysis, after the data is uploaded to the cloud. We need strong hi-tech, AI and data scientists, computer-vision experts, and we have them here in Israel. A field that’s going to grow very much are the imagery analysts and the data scientists and there’s a different level of expertise that is needed. By the way, we are outsourcing to employees in Ukraine. They make a great contribution. There are about 60 people right now in Ukraine who are SeeTree employees. So, I see this capability growing in Eastern Europe of bachelor-degree computer developers, students in that area who are very relevant for this.

What about the ‘soft’ or ‘transversal’ skills?

You are right, they are very relevant because we have customer success managers that work with the farmers. They have to have a farming or agronomy background and they have to be very good in communication skills, very sensitive and very careful because you are working with local teams that see a threat in our findings – that we might find their mistakes. We do this with a combination of Israeli workers and local workers.

All this must be improving the attractivity of agriculture as a sector for young people?

I was 33 years in the defence sector, dealing with intelligence and operations, and when I retired from that I hooked up to my family background which is in agriculture. I saw the need on one hand, and on the other hand the opportunity to bring technologies that were not in agriculture before. So, things like drones and sensors that were defence-based have transformed to agriculture. And this is bringing over young people because it’s neat. You have drones, you have sensors, you have digital apps. There are also the values, of being able to be greener and help the environment and food optimization, which are bringing over young people. We are starting to see that it’s rejuvenating the agronomy and the farming field. But there is still an issue of getting young people interested in the new agronomy. It hasn’t transformed that fast – it has on the business side but not on the education side. The universities are still teaching regular agronomy and farming skills. The drones are not even in the universities yet, and they need to get in there.

Are there opportunities for PPPs to develop new agri-tech tools?

A research centre may run a study on a group of 100 trees for 3 years, trying a new technique, a new experiment. We see 300 million trees every month, so the rate that we get the insights and can verify issues and check things is on a different scale totally. And it’s blowing their minds! Yes, we are offering to do that – you will be the research partner, we’ll share with you the data we connect and let’s build this model. But on the business side they need to be willing to adapt as well because if it takes a year to get authorisation to do a project like this, we’re not waiting.

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