"Social Device" Special Interview

The contents were published on "Technology Online", the engineering information website
run by Nikkei Business Publications, Inc., and reprinted with the author's permission.

Social Device - Special Interview

Agriculture in Japan is facing a variety of problems, such as the rising average age of the farmers, but new technologies from entirely new and unexpected sectors are being applied to find new solutions. Satoshi Iida, Senior Managing Executive Officer, General Manager of R&D Headquarters, and General Manager of Water & Environment R&D at Kubota, a leader in agricultural machinery and the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) in agricultural assistance solutions, discussed the future of agriculture with Isao Matsumoto, Director & General Manager–LSI Production at ROHM, which is putting advanced electronic device technologies to work in the field.

Satoshi Iida
Senior Managing Executive General Manager of R&D Headquarters, and General Manager of Water & Environment R&D, Kubota Corp.

Kubota was founded in 1890 to manufacture and sell castings, and gradually expanded its range of operations from ductile iron pipes for drinking water to agricultural machinery, environmental systems, and more. We have been involved in agriculture for over ninety years. We began in 1922 with the manufacture of our first agricultural engine, and followed it up with a range of cultivators, tractors, and rice and wheat combines. We have consistently been in the forefront of the mechanization of Japanese agriculture.


ROHM was founded in 1958 as a resistor manufacturer, but today semiconductor devices account for 80% of our revenue. In addition to semiconductor devices, we also supply our famous resistors, tantalum capacitors and other passives, and a variety of modules.

Until recently we have provided these products primarily to consumer electronics, but lately we are experiencing significant growth in the automotive and industrial equipment sectors. Another very promising market we are keeping an eye on is agriculture, because we believe that the utilization of information and communications technology (ICT) will bring about a new revolution there.

Larger scale and better productivity essential


The introduction of ICT in agriculture is accelerating due to a number of problems faced by Japanese agriculture today. The biggest problem is labor: the average age of farm workers is increasing and the number of workers decreasing. The average area of each cultivation is fairly small, making it difficult to scale up operations to boost productivity.

The resolution of these problems will require concentrating a number of small cultivations to increase operational scale, while simultaneously finding ways to improve efficiency and productivity. ICT will be crucial in attaining these goals, because by promoting rationalization and higher efficiency, agricultural productivity, quality and cost competitiveness will improve. In recognition of this, we developed the Kubota Smart Agricultural System (KSAS) to support agricultural businesses and services.


Could you outline KSAS briefly for me?

Direct data acquisition via agricultural machinery


KSAS is fundamentally a system that helps visualize agriculture business operations (Fig. 1). A variety of data is collected from the rice paddies, and uploaded to the cloud server. The data is shared by the farmer and the manager, and can be analyzed to yield a variety of information. The information can be easily accessed through a personal computer, or a handheld device connected via wireless LAN.

Fig. 1 Kubota Smart Agricultural System (KSAS)

The key point is that the farmer does not have to input the data: it is collected in realtime by the agricultural machinery, via the wireless LAN, during normal operation. We developed the first combine in the industry equipped with sensors to measure flavor (water and protein content) and yield, along with a seedling planter with program-controlled fertilization, and a new tractor.

Since the system was released in June 2014, we have introduced KSAS into over 500 farms, including both the basic course with only the information system, and the complete course which also includes KSAS-compatible agricultural machinery.


You said that KSAS provides realtime visualization of the status of the paddy, but what does this mean for the farmer?


This system makes it possible, for example, to manage the yield and flavor in single-paddy units, and the data can be used to optimize tasks for each paddy, too. It is easier to adjust the amount of fertilizer to be used the following season. The flavor sensor measures the water content along with the protein content, and if the drying process is controlled accordingly it would be possible to eliminate wasted energy there as well. Thorough optimization not only improves task efficiency, it also saves energy. The data on the protein content can also be used to add value to the rice by improving flavor. Crop traceability is excellent, so farmers can stress the safety of their crops.

Emerging ICT technologies and applications

Isao Matsumoto
Director & General Manager–LSI Production, ROHM Co., Ltd.

The electronic devices that will be crucial in providing this sort of visualization are sensors. ROHM is very active in the sensor field, and offers an extensive line-up including environmental sensors for distance, visible and ultraviolet illumination, and temperature, as well as sensors to detect changes in motion such as acceleration sensors or gyrosensors. We have also developed a variety of next-gen sensors, such as the ultra-high-sensitivity CIGS image sensor capable of sensing across a broad spectrum from visible to near infrared, and high-performance biometric sensors. We believe these sensors will be invaluable in a wide range of applications including medicine, security, and industrial equipment.

Group company Kionix Inc. of the United States is recognized globally as a pioneer in Micro Electro-Mechanical System(MEMS) sensors, and we are working on applying the sensor technology of the entire group into agriculture.


The flavor and yield sensors in the KSAS-compatible combine were developed by Kubota, and are critical devices in introducing ICT into agriculture.


There have been developments recently in the use of sensor networks in agriculture, but the problem with networks is cabling. It is simply not practical to web the fields and greenhouses with power and signal cables. We provide the wireless communication technology to resolve this problem. One very promising next-gen wireless technology is EnOcean, which harvests environmental energy such as ambient light or motion to generate power, eliminating the need for power or signal wires, and allowing the construction of maintenance-free sensor networks. We already provide compact temperature sensor modules combining this technology with compact solar cells.

LAPIS Semiconductor, another group firm, has a number of communication technologies including special low-power wireless in the 920 MHz waveband, Wireless LAN, and Bluetooth Low Energy and similar standards designed for smartphones and other mobile devices. In short, all the wireless communication technology necessary to construct a sensor network.


Are these technologies and products are available for agricultural applications?


Full-scale rollout is yet to come. We have constructed a plant factory utilizing our semiconductor production technology inside our fab in Chikugo, Fukuoka prefecture, as part of our initiative to develop the agricultural market. We are already growing strawberries there (Fig. 2). The plant factory makes use of a cleanroom from the semiconductor fab, with illumination from light-emitting diodes (LED), and with temperature, humidity and other environmental factors precisely computer-controlled. It makes use of a variety of new systems, developed in-house, and our own semiconductor devices. We have been able to slash agrochemical usage to a tenth of conventional levels. We will use the facility to continue to develop new technologies and solutions as we better understand the needs of agriculture.

Fig. 2 ROHM's plant factory

The increasing responsibility of the manufacturer


With the deployment of KSAS, which is so closely involved with farm management, to the market, we feel that our responsibility to the customer and to society has increased considerably. I think you must feel the same sense of responsibility as sales of electronic devices to the agricultural sector rise.


Since our foundation we have had a corporate goal of contributing to the advancement of culture through quality products and manufacturing. To ensure that we continue to reach this goal we handle the entire process, from materials to our own manufacturing equipment, for many of our products. We check quality stringently and ensure traceability so that we can remain a trustworthy, reliable company.

In addition to this effort, which has been under way since our establishment, we are also strengthening our business continuity plan (BCP) as we expand into new fields. The Great East Japan Earthquake and the floods in Thailand damaged a number of our plants, making product shipment impossible, and drove home the importance of social responsibility and BCP.


Kubota has been involved in agriculture for many years, but we adopted a very different approach when we started to provide solutions for farm management. When developing KSAS, for example, we assigned maximum priority to the needs and thoughts of the farmer. Development engineers visited cooperating farms frequently for three years, seeing with their own eyes exactly what was happening. KSAS was the first product we developed based on that level of interaction with actual farmers.

In order to provide solutions that really addressed their needs, we had to bring together technologies and expertise from a number of divisions, in a development project that crossed existing organizational boundaries. It was a new experience in many ways.

Providing a diverse range of advanced technologies


When you're providing large-scale solutions that encompass large parts of society, you always run into situations where you have to bring technologies together across traditional organizational or even corporate boundaries.


KSAS today provides the functionality needed for rice cultivation in Japan, but we plan to expand functions to handle field crops as well. We will also need system functions that can acquire and analyze data, and increase control precision. We hope to export the system in the future, and it is likely that we will run into problems with sensor technology or other issues that we cannot handle ourselves. In that casewe would need to tie up with a company involved with advanced devices, like ROHM.


It takes a long time to bring a crop to harvest, and I think any application of electronics would demand energy efficiency. Power devices, used in electrical circuits handling high power levels such as power supplies and motors, are one type of electronic device that can make a real contribution toward saving energy in electrical and electronic equipment. We handle a diverse range of these power devices, and are finding new applications in the automotive and industrial machinery fields now. We are pushing SiC power devices in particular, because they offer significantly lower power losses than conventional devices. I think these power devices will be invaluable in agriculture as well.

As ICT is increasingly applied in agriculture, I think it will create a variety of new needs for electronic devices, and I hope you'll keep us in mind when the time comes.

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