Many of us own what is one of the great unsung institutions of the modern era – the humble workbench. A surface invariably cluttered with all manner of things, ranging from once used power tools to a multitude of old discarded ‘what-d’you-call-its’. In many ways, this high altar of weekend inactivity reflects who we are and what interests us. Very few of us have need for two workbenches – each in a distinct location and each for a seemingly unrelated purpose.
Meet Dimitri Evangelopoulos, a 27-year-old Greek farmer and Electrical Engineer who has his sights set on revolutionising current agricultural practices. He is the owner of two meticulously tidy and fully functional workbenches. The first would fascinate anyone interested in mechanics and not adverse to getting their hands dirty. Although Dimitri mainly uses this workbench to keep the farm machinery operative, inventive tinkering is also involved. Having built his own four cylinder, skeletal vehicle capable of running him around the fields by the age of twelve, he is more than qualified to put the rest of us dabblers to shame. He does, however, confess with abandoned glee to “like playing around with the acetylene blowtorch most.”
The second workbench is at home. For mere mortals such as you and me, that would mean in a garage or backyard shed, but not so for Dimitri. His takes up most of the living room and is piled with oscilloscopes, spectrum analysers and all manner of electronic gadgets and components – a proverbial candy shop for anyone electronically inclined. While taking a soldering iron to a circuit board on which his name and a copy-write symbol are imprinted, he delineates the connection between these seemingly incongruous worlds. “Both my parents were taken by cancer before I turned 20, so I was left with the family farm and an unfinished undergrad degree. I guess I combined the two out of necessity.” He goes on to explain that one of the first things was to automate the irrigation system. “I couldn’t afford the time to drive out to the farm just to switch on the water, so I made remote IP relay valves and used the internet.”
A FORAY IN AUGMENTED FARMING
That kind of practicality, together with an inquiring mind, have served Dimitri well.
“At first, I followed normal farming practices as dictated by agronomists and convention. I quickly realised, however, the imprecision and waste, so began searching for better ways.”
He was soon to meet the local dealer for Barilla, the Italian based multinational responsible for so much of the spaghetti found on our dinner plates.
“He was astounded by me keeping a simple diary which I used to compare each years’ inputs and crop yields. This ran contrary to his experience of Greek farmers, who stuck to the time-honoured traditions of ill-planning and guesswork, so he put me in touch with the Agricultural faculty at the university,” Dimitri recalls.
At the time, the University of Thessaly was trying to formulate a catalogue of good farming practices and invited Dimitri to participate.
“Although I put myself at considerable financial risk, their scientific approach made absolute sense to me.”
Based on their analysis, and in spite of the counsel insisted on by agronomists, Dimitri followed the university’s unorthodox advice concerning fertiliser application, fungicide and so on.
“The pilot fields ended up producing considerably more yield than ever before. I was forced to re-think absolutely everything I had learnt or been told about farming.”
It was the turning point which directly lead to the co-founding of Augmenta and what he and his partner have coined ‘Augmented Farming’. The term describes real-time data collection from crop fields which is immediately actionable – meaning that it is used then and there to control the machinery spreading fertiliser, for instance, so that only the required amount is ever used. The system is self-learning as the collected data is utilised to create actionable profiles on every part of the field. This means that farming procedures are constantly augmented by increasingly refined data on the myriad of variables involved, thereby making it possible for the system to meet exact crop need.
“Back then, I was looking to improve the wasteful method of blanket fertilisation when I learned there is a direct relationship between how green the plants are and how much nitrogen they have absorbed,” Dimitri explained.
After teaming up with friend and fellow Engineering student George Varvarelis, they soon had a simple sensor strapped to the front of Dimitri’s tractor which could detect the colouration of wheat plants. This information was processed by a box of electronic wizardry created on Dimitri’s workbench and used to control the actuators he had fitted to the fertiliser spreader at the back.
“It was an indescribable moment when it all came together for the first time. It was almost uncanny – all I had to do is drive across the fields and the system did the rest!”
But there were teething problems. The sensor proved too imprecise and had trouble detecting crop variations caused by soil type and poor drainage.
“Then, another good friend of mine suggested spectrum analysis, explaining that astronomers can tell the chemical composition of stars based on their spectral signatures. George and I went back to the workbench and designed the system using far more versatile and infinitely more accurate 4K spectral cameras – and it worked amazingly well!”
Field testing by the university proved that the system produces higher yield, less waste and improved crop quality.
FROM FARMING RESEARCHER TO ENTREPRENEUR
With the concept proven, the next hurdle was perhaps an even greater challenge. Greece has suffered a decade of austerity and economic decline. It is not an environment conducive to promoting the bright ideas of young people, despite their boundless enthusiasm and being armed with an invention set to turn the world of agriculture upside down. Fortunately, they were accepted by EGG – a program run in co-operation with Eurobank S.A. which does its best to get some start-ups off the ground, in spite of the prevalent ill-wind.
“George deserves respect for the giant leap of faith he took when we founded the company – we were risking everything and so much was uncertain,” Dimitri explained.
The co-founders moved to Athens and built a team of like-minded individuals around them.
“You soon learn that nothing is more important than being with good people who share the same vision.”
The system has since evolved to include the capacity for pesticide and fungicide spraying. Importantly, machine learning and big data are also part of the package that is offered as a ‘plug and play’ device.
“The data from the cameras is sent via the 4G mobile phone network to build a profile of the farmer’s crops, so not only is the status of every inch of the field known in real-time, but the system improves in accuracy each and every time it is used.”
The system has already undergone testing in various European countries. Seed funding from Marathon Venture Capital was recently secured, so Augmenta is soon to open an office in the US.
It is also a finalist in Mass-Challenge Texas, the largest no-equity start-up accelerator in the world. With global food demands climbing and concerns about the environment rife, people are beginning to see that ‘Augmented Farming’ may very well be the solution so desperately needed.
From workbench tinkerer to becoming the benchmark for young entrepreneurial spirit in a relative heartbeat, Dimitri has had to learn fast to pursue his dream.
“There are many challenges ahead, but each step is a collective learning process which helps with the next one – after all, learning curves are there to climb, most especially the steep ones!” He pauses reflectively before adding; “And if my story thus far proves anything, it is that when surrounded by truly wonderful people, anything at all is possible.” With a robust mindset like that, one can only agree.