By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant & Food Research
A number of industries are now developing and using digital twins – virtual representations of real objects or systems. In digital twins, data flow back and forth between the physical and virtual, enabling real-time monitoring and data for management decisions.
Despite the increased use of digital twins in other industries, they have not yet been utilised in agriculture. The virtualisation of aspects of farming has increased in recent years, however, providing the potential for the development of digital twins in this sector in future.
Living systems are more complex than artificial ones, which may explain why developing digital twins in agriculture has taken longer than in other industries. We are still trying to understand many processes. For example, how can we monitor nutrient management in crops? Size is another challenge. Human-made products tend to be smaller than farms or entire regions.
While developing digital twins for agriculture presents massive challenges, it also presents enormous opportunities. Digital twins could enable us to reach new levels of productivity and sustainability more rapidly. Using digital twins, farmers could monitor critical data like growth, yield, quality, nutrient cycling, water use and even worker safety. They could act on this information immediately. A fully-fledged digital twin would enable a farm to operate autonomously without the need for on-farm observation and monitoring.
Scientists could use digital twins to explore the impacts of environmental change, pests and diseases and biodiversity, among other things. This would enable the rapid trialling of new ideas to optimise systems for the future. As well as representing real-time systems and simulating future changes, digital twins can store historic data, providing an invaluable archive for future decisions.
The transformation of our food systems to meet the challenges of the future is inevitable. Developing digital twins for agriculture offers a way to navigate through the social, consumer, environmental and regulatory complexities and rapidly test various alternatives. Optimising the opportunities offered by the advance of digital technologies provides a promising path for improving sustainability and providing resilience in agricultural systems.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.