Homemade smart farming
by Danae Bersi, Content Creator, New Agriculture New Generation

Talking with Michalis Moraitis and Konstantinos Vaiopoulos

Michalis Moraitis and Konstantinos Vaiopoulos are two restless young people with brilliant ideas. One of those ideas, won the first place in the Trophy-Τροφή Challenge competition implemented by the New Agriculture New Generation organisation, in the category Agri-Tech & Food-Tech Ideas.

While talking with them, one can see that one complements the other. Michalis is from Athens and Konstantinos is from Karditsa, but Thessaloniki brought them together.

Michalis graduated in Agriculture in Athens, majoring in Agricultural Engineering. There he got to know precision farming, or "smart farming," firsthand, and that attracted him. Thus, after a search, he ended up at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where he has been taking for the last 2 years his master's degree, "Advanced computer and communication systems". He admits that it was a difficult step for an agronomist to suddenly turn into this direction.

Konstantinos, on the other hand, found himself in Thessaloniki in 2010. There he studied at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Technical University. His father is a farmer, so he knows firsthand the agricultural sector as every year he goes and helps his father in all stages of development of the plants he cultivates. A year ago, in 2019, he also started his Master's degree, in the Department of Informatics of the same University, but this time, he chose the subject of Artificial Intelligence.

The two met as co-workers at the National Center for Research and Technological Development located at the Institute of Bioeconomics and Agrotechnology, where they have been working for the last year. In addition to their collaboration at work, the two began to hang out outside of work and discover many common interests. "When we talked, new ideas came quite easily and effortlessly. Somehow, through the conversation and from our personal concerns, the idea of CityVeg was born", says Konstantinos. "Either we would collaborate on something like that, or in music!", adds Michalis laughing.

CityVeg: 3D robotic platform for irrigation, fertilization and weed control

But what is CityVeg really and how did it come about? "The spark lit when in a conversation with Michalis, we were wondering how confident one can feel about the quality of the vegetables he consumes, since he does not know exactly how they are produced. This dispute led us to the conclusion that it is better to be able to grow these vegetables by yourself, everywhere, even in the city "says Konstantinos with Michalis adding" but how can a person do it alone when he lives in the city, works every day and his schedule does not allow him this occupation? " That was, after all, my question.

Thus, was born the idea of creating a platform that would do this all by itself. CityVeg is a 3D robotic platform, a small construction that fits on a flower bed, has the ability to move along the entire length and width of the flower bed and applies irrigation, fertilization and herbicide procedure based on the needs of each plant.

"It's like a big 3D printer," Michalis explains. "It has exactly the same philosophy, it is a Cartesian robot", adds Konstantinos. But how does it perceive the needs of each plant? As Konstantinos explains to me, CityVeg is programmed to photograph the floor plan of the flowerbed 1 to 2 times a day. These photos are sent via a WI-FI connection to special software located in the cloud, feeding a neural network that the team has trained with a variety of photos of each plant species, and thus can pinpoint exactly which plant it is. Then, Michalis adds that "having identified the plant, the software sees the coordinates in space and their size. At the same time, it receives moisture data from an independent sensor that we have installed and thus, realizes how much water each plant needs ". Using the same technology, it can recognize the need for hydro-lubrication as well as for biological pesticides.

"The great innovation of CityVeg is the accuracy it has", Konstantinos explains to me. "Our goal is for a family to forget about going to the supermarket, to be able to cover its own needs for vegetables, while at the same time being sure that the quality is the best possible."

Their participation in the Trophy-Τροφή Challenge and the victory

Wanting to develop their idea but also to finally be able to put it into practice, Konstantinos and Michalis, decided to participate in the Trophy-Τροφή Challenge competition of the New Agriculture New Generation organisation, which took place in July 2020 .

They heard about the competition through social media but also through suggestions from acquaintances, friends and colleagues who believed that the contest could offer a lot to the team, regardless of the prizes they might win. In the end, it seems that Konstantinos and Michalis feel the same, although they finally managed to get the 1st place in the Agri-Tech & Food-Tech Ideas category of the competition.

"The whole process of participating in the competition, the bootcamps, it was a very positive experience with interactivity and intense cooperation", Konstantinos tells me while he adds that "We spoke with experienced professionals in the agri-food sector, who gave us valuable advice while at the same time, they introduced us to the world of business, something we did not know and it was one of our main goals to learn it better ".

What’s really interesting is that when they submitted their proposal for participation in the Agri-Tech & Food-Tech Ideas category, Michalis and Konstantinos were still working on the technical parts of CityVeg. But by the time they were selected they had already managed to build the prototype CityVeg, going from idea to practice. Konstantinos, who is a generally positive person, states that "I believed very much from the beginning that we would be able to win, I really believed in our idea!" And so it happened.

They tell me that the cash prize they won from the competition they intend to use it for the purchase of additional equipment. But the most important prize for them, they believe is the mentoring that will follow and they are looking forward to it, so that they can proceed to the next steps, which is both the completion of the prototype and the subsequent pilot tests in different environmental conditions, with the aim of creating a product that is ready to be released in the coming years in the markets.

Konstantinos tells me that CityVeg is aimed at middle- or high-income families, people who care about their diet and have decided to adopt a "green" lifestyle. He adds that "now with the covid-19 pandemic, many people chose local shops for their shopping and others avoided supermarkets due to overcrowding. These people can benefit from having CityVeg at home. It gives you autonomy". Also, as it provides remote control, anyone will be able to install it even on their holiday home and monitor the process through an app.

In closing, I am pleased to see that CityVeg can serve another purpose, a social purpose, as it can be particularly useful to people with disabilities or mobility problems. "We believe that it can give these people independence, which is essential for their good quality of life. "Apart from that, however, it can also give them self-confidence, as they will be able to produce something basic for their diet, and therefore for their life", says Konstantinos. They also told me a little secret, that they are thinking of using voice commands, for CityVeg to be even more accessible to people with disabilities.