The ANTARES project is the largest scientific research project ever funded by the European Union in Serbia
Since its founding, the BioSense Institute has been engaged in scientific research in agriculture and is one of the most developed scientific institutions in the region. Through transdisciplinary scientific research, the mission of the BioSense researchers is to provide sufficient quantities of adequate food for the ever-growing global population, while minimizing the impact of agricultural production on the environment. We talked with Professor Vesna Bengin, PhD, about the application of innovative IT solutions and digitalization towards increasing the efficiency of domestic agriculture and the work done by the institute.
BioSense is one of the leading organizations engaged in the research of advanced ICT technologies. What are you currently working on in terms of the application of new technologies in agriculture?
Through the ANTARES project that i coordinate, which is the largest scientific research project ever funded by the European Union in Serbia, we are developing a European centre of scientific excellence for modern technologies in agriculture. Our focus is on translating everything that information technology, as the most mature technology of today, can offer, into devices and methods that will help agriculture to be more efficient. One of our most visible results is certainly the AgroSens digital platform which was also supported by the Directorate for Agrarian Payments of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management. AgroSens enables computers and telephones to monitor crop status based on data collected from drones, meteorological stations, satellites and various sensors, while its latest version allows farmers to determine different management zones on a single plot of land where they will sample the land and devise a precise way to fertilize according to the needs of the plant. The AgroSens platform currently has about 20,000 users, and a quarter of the total arable land in Vojvodina is registered on it.
Furthermore, we are doing research in several areas of science – nano- and microelectronics, the science of materials, plasmonics and acoustics to develop sensors that will accurately, simply and quickly measure all parameters relevant to agricultural crops, and, with the help of artificial intelligence algorithms, enable the best decisions to be made at the right time.
Finally, we want to develop a strong ecosystem around the centre of excellence that will facilitate a strong connection between the scientific community and businesses, decision-makers, farmers, entrepreneurs, but also schools, pupils, students and citizens.
The digital technologies we develop can help both large and small farmers
There is a saying that Vojvodina can feed the whole of Europe. What needs to be done for that to happen and how can we reach that goal with the help of innovations?
Yes, I heard that saying when I was a child, but unfortunately it has never come true. For agriculture to be efficient, to get more quality crops with fewer investments and less risk, it must be optimized. To optimize such a complex biosystem, we first need to understand it very well. That is why we are developing various sensors, methods and devices, which will give us a detailed insight into all the processes that take place in and around the plant, and which will allow us to apply the concept of precision agriculture – a concept whereby each plant gets exactly what it needs, how much it needs and when it needs it. Only in that way, with the application of scientific results and innovations, Vojvodina can one day really become the breadbasket of entire Europe.
How can electrical engineering increase the efficiency of agriculture?
During the first phase, we develop various sensors that will give us as much information as possible about the plant itself, the soil, and atmospheric and meteorological conditions. When we collate all this data, we use artificial intelligence to analyze it and find hidden dependencies among different parameters. Based on this information, we can give the farmer the right advice – similar to how a doctor prescribes therapy. For example, this includes advising the farmer which variety is best for a particular land plot, where, when and how much of it should be fertilized and irrigated, or which crop should be planted on which part of the property. Such advice is valuable. Just one piece of advice on the structure of crops and which crop to sow on which plot, on a farm that spans 6,000 hectares, can bring an additional income of over 1 million euro annually without any additional investments, while, at the same time, the risks associated with production are reduced. The digital technologies we develop can help both large and small farmers. We are committed to developing science that aims to make life easier for farmers.
We have to nurture a culture in which it is not shameful to fail but is shameful not to try
What do you think about the startup scene of Serbia? What is Serbia’s potential to shine on the global technological and development scene?
Startups encourage innovation and create healthy competition, as well as diversify and strengthen the economic space of a country. Serbia has this opportunity – our people are innovative and it is not uncommon to come across exceptional, world-class ideas in our startups. However, a good idea, enthusiasm and courage are not enough for a startup to be successful. In addition to effort, the environment is crucial, i.e. the existence of a system that supports people with ideas, which removes instead of puts obstacles in front of them, from ensuring that have enough available and diverse low-budget workspace, training and accelerator programmes to simplified administrative procedures are simplified, positive legislation and easier access to funding. Although a lot has been done in our country in the last few years on this issue, it is still not enough. Very often I meet innovative young people who do not even try to turn their ideas into new products, worrying in advance about legal and economic uncertainty. These are the areas where the state can do a lot to validate Serbia as an environment suitable for the development of startups and to help our entrepreneurs accomplish global success.
Does success come easier for startups from developed countries, or do those from emerging countries like ours have a better chance?
Startups can be created anywhere, and often in countries with the greatest needs, we can see the greatest opportunities for development. Certainly, startups emerging in developed countries have much greater resources available than our domestic startups. However, there is something that each of us can do today. We have to nurture and disseminate a culture in which it is not shameful to fail but is shameful not to try. The statistics say that most startups will be unsuccessful and failure in our society is still stigmatized in a certain way. That is why we must nurture a climate that favours entrepreneurship, innovation and courage, have confidence in people with ideas and encourage them to try again.
Both BioSense and you personally have won numerous awards. How important are recognitions as a driving force behind further development of both personal and BioSense’s potential?
Recognitions are a great driving force. They give a person the strength to move on. But our greatest motivation comes from the desire to make the lives of the people around us better with our work, through the application of the scientific results we develop. Through transdisciplinary scientific research, the mission of the BioSense researchers is to provide sufficient quantities of adequate food for the ever-growing global population, while minimizing the impact of agricultural production on the environment. We want to contribute to the creation of a secure and orderly society, a society that thrives. I believe that together, by working on the latest scientific topics, direct application of our results in practice, keeping young scientists in the country and investing in startups and people with ideas, we can together create a living and working environment that will motivate us all to progress.