Agriculture x ICT: Will Tokyo-Style Smart Agriculture Help Solve the Global Food Crisis?

A Tokyo-based project implementing cutting-edge agriculture through private 5G is garnering worldwide interest, after three years of results that have exceeded initial expectations.
Technologies such as 4K cameras are used to capture high-resolution footage of the inside of the greenhouse, which is then transmitted to remote locations through private 5G in real time. This allows those in faraway locations to provide instructions on agricultural technologies directly to the workers at these greenhouses.

Cutting Down on Labor Needs in Agricultural Work

The dwindling birthrate and aging population in Japan have presented a serious issue for Japanese agriculture—namely, a decline in the number of agricultural workers in the country. The number of key agricultural workers in private farming enterprises decreased by 394,000 (22.4 percent) from 2015 to 2020, from about 1.76 million to 1.36 million. Of these key agricultural workers, 69.6 percent were 65 years old or older, demonstrating a 4.7 percentage-point increase in five years (source: "2020 Census of Agriculture and Forestry in Japan," Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries). It is clear that there will be a sharp decline in Japan's food production capacity and the international competitiveness of Japanese agricultural products if this trend continues.

As such, establishing efficient and highly productive agricultural systems and reducing labor needs for agricultural work are of the utmost importance. Indeed, municipalities, organizations, and companies across Japan are working on innovative smart agriculture initiatives to achieve this outcome. One such initiative is a project that was carried out by the NTT AgriTechnology Corporation, a company working to implement the advanced ICT technologies of the NTT Group in the field of agriculture.

Farming Newbies Grow High-Quality Tomatoes Through Remote Instruction

NTT AgriTechnology, the Tokyo Development Foundation for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East Corp (NTT East). established this three-year project—referred to formally as a collaboration agreement for the implementation of cutting-edge agriculture using private 5G—in 2020.

The aim of the project was to create a Tokyo-based "model" case that could be used to bolster the future of Japanese agriculture. More specifically, the project involved setting up cutting-edge greenhouses equipped with private 5G in Chofu City, Tokyo, and using them to grow tomatoes. Ultra-high-resolution cameras, smart glasses, and other technologies were used to give the workers—who had no prior farming experience—remote instructions. The environments in the greenhouses were managed fully automatically, with sensors that measured factors like the temperature and CO2 concentration in the greenhouses in order to optimize the photosynthesis of the crops.

A cutting-edge technology that combines smart glasses with AR was developed in order to make the process of growth surveying—used to stabilize the quality and yield of crops—more efficient. This was used to automate tasks like measurement and tabulation.

It has been about three years since the project began. Nakanishi Masahiro of the Corporate Strategy Planning Department at NTT East, who was a core member of the team that set up NTT AgriTechnology, says, "Workers with no farming experience were able to grow high-quality tomatoes with remote instruction. We've even had better yields from the second year onwards, so results have been great." The project has also managed to establish a "local production for local consumption" model, with the tomatoes produced in these greenhouses sold within Chofu City or given to local elementary schools.

Remote-controlled data collection robots navigate around the greenhouses, capturing growth conditions with a 4K camera.

Cutting-Edge Greenhouses See Visitors from Around the World

The Netherlands and Spain are two countries that have succeeded in using advanced environmental management technologies and labor optimization to establish large-scale agricultural systems. The Netherlands is a particularly compelling example in that it is the second-largest agricultural producing country in the world—with about 40 percent of the area of Japan. Representatives from NTT AgriTechnology visited the Netherlands for agricultural research, and were inspired by the semi-automated and standardized operations they saw in the country's large-scale greenhouse horticulture systems.

To implement something similar in Japan, however, they would have to cope with various environmental changes—including the seasons—and compensate for the lack of growers and workers with experience in large-scale greenhouse horticulture. As such, their goal was to develop a facility that could handle a wide variety of circumstances. This was done not only through the expertise they gleaned overseas, but also through the addition of monitoring systems that focus on "human" factors like labor and work management, and the digitalization of the facility itself.

Already, agriculture professionals and researchers from across the world have come to Tokyo to observe and inspect this example of cutting-edge agriculture based on the use of private 5G. Regarding the benefits of the project being based in Tokyo, Nakanishi says, "I think the reason we've gotten so much attention for this is precisely because this smart agriculture site is located in a city like Tokyo that's easy to visit from abroad."

A group of overseas agriculture professionals and researchers visiting one of the cutting-edge greenhouses in Chofu City. Many of these visitors are surprised by the very "Japanese" idea of using ICT to give remote farming instructions. They also express interest in the project's cutting-edge technologies, like its high-resolution image data that allows for growth surveys to be conducted remotely.

NTT AgriTechnology is currently considering the dissemination of these cutting-edge technologies overseas, backed with training on how to use them. Indeed, this Tokyo-based agricultural system could be a key to solving not only the issues faced in the Japanese agricultural world, but also the global food crisis.

Translation by Amitt