Self-driving farm machinery services.

Kubota will work with Nippon Telegraph & Telephone to develop cutting-edge agricultural technology, including autonomous equipment, in an effort to support a graying Japanese agricultural sector while lifting sales in such regions as Southeast Asia.

The two Japanese companies will announce the partnership as early as this week. They will set up a new IT service for farmers, which they plan to use to help put self-driving farm equipment on the market, targeting a 2018 rollout.

Kubota has commercialized systems that use such data as the flavor and water content of rice harvested from individual paddies to automatically adjust fertilizer application the following year. NTT will supply accurate GPS technology as well as systems using artificial intelligence to forecast weather and harvest times.

The new service will use sensors positioned around farmland to measure temperature and water levels. This data, along with crop pictures taken by drones, will be used to perform a detailed analysis of growth. After taking climate and crop types into account, the system will determine when to fertilize and harvest each paddy, then send the appropriate directions to equipment over the internet. Customers will also be able to use drones to apply agrochemicals to just disease-affected areas.

The Japanese agricultural sector faces an aging problem and a severe labor shortage. The average age of farmers reached 66.4 in 2015, up more than three years from a decade earlier, shows data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Incorporating information technology into farm machinery will let even young, inexperienced operators perform farm work easily.

And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is ratified, exports of agricultural products could pick up. NTT’s worldwide network of internet service bases will let Kubota supply autonomous equipment in such regions as Southeast Asia, where rice is a major crop.

Kubota ranks fourth in the global agricultural equipment market, with annual sales of around 1 trillion yen ($9.38 billion). Getting a leg up on rivals with advanced technology using big-data analysis would help the company market to large agribusinesses in Europe and the U.S.

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