Stories tagged: agricultural technology

How to Ensure the Digital Revolution Leaves No One Behind

By Ranveer Chandra, Chief Scientist, Azure Global, Microsoft.

In Davos this week, the world’s elite will gather to debate ways to navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A major component of Globalization 4.0 (as the World Economic Forum has dubbed it) is the high-tech digital revolution that is changing the way live day to day.

Data has been essential to farmers’ work for generations. Weather patterns, historical crop yield data and market information all helps to inform their planting cycle, treatment and watering plans. Farmers have also been many of the first technology “early adopters,” in many parts of the world, enabling them do their job with greater efficiency.

Yet, the 21st century breakthrough of broadband Internet has created a vast digital divide. Many farmers that are as yet “unconnected”, are barred from the opportunity to benefit from the big data revolution advancing business globally.

With the proliferation of Internet connectivity and data intelligence from AI algorithms, Internet of Things (IoT) devices can sense and respond to their environment in real time. For over a decade, I have been researching ways to connect the farm, and bring the world of agriculture into the data economy.

Prior studies by the FAO have shown that crop yields need to more than double by 2050, compared to 2010 levels, to meet growing demand. Couple that growth with receding water levels, the shrinking of arable land,  the degradation of environments, and the need for nourishing food, and the world has a nearly impossible problem to solve.

With Internet-connected sensors, and advances in Computer Vision and AI we can understand precisely how the land is behaving. This can be used to optimize yield and reduce the use of resources like water and chemicals by taking out the guesswork in today’s farming operations.

Roughly five years ago, I set out to figure out how to create a system to unblock the data problem.

Unblocking the Connectivity Problem

Over-the-air broadcast TV is not widely available in rural areas. It’s common to see several stations of static grey, white and black-dotted screen. This is what we call TV white spaces, and can be used to transmit data using wireless networking. This can be a workable alternative to Wi-Fi in remote places.

TV white space devices can determine which TV channels are unused at a given location, and transmit Wi-Fi like signals on each channel such that it doesn’t interfere with transmissions on neighbouring TV channels. Typically, more than 20 TV channels are available in rural areas, which can carry several 100 Mbps of data.

Microsoft is the first to develop a TV white spaces radio to enable Wi-Fi-like connectivity. We have also used this technology to connect high-schools, hospitals and of course, farms in the US, as well as in emerging economies, such as Africa and India.

Precision Agriculture with Data: From the Ground to the Sky

Our FarmBeats project has also built a full solution that smallholder farmers can use to interpret soil activity and microclimates. This helps overcome investment in expensive sensors and equipment.

The project takes a ground and aerial approach, using data from low-cost sensors, drones, and satellites, and applies vision and machine learning algorithms to create a digital heat map.  This gives farmers prescriptive action they can take based on soil moisture, temperature and microclimates.

Ground sensors have been available to the agriculture community for over a decade. While a powerful tool, ground sensors can cost thousands of dollars. We needed to find a way to use fewer, low-cost sensors but still understand what the farm is doing. This is where drones and cloud intelligence using AI capabilities such as vision, deep learning and other machine learning techniques come in.

We developed AI models to predict sensor values, such as soil moisture values, from a few sensors to all other parts of the farm by combining data from ground sensors and aerial imagery from drones. From the sky, the drone is using this cloud intelligence and advanced aerial mapping capabilities to create a digital map as seen below.

We developed AI models to predict sensor values, such as soil moisture values, from a few sensors to all other parts of the farm by combining data from ground sensors and aerial imagery from drones.

Edge computing is a term for facilitating data processing  that takes place as close to the device as possible to reduce latency and improve ability to move from insights to action quickly. The drone or a camera in this scenario is an intelligent edge device, and the ability to act quickly based on these images cannot be understated for a farmer.

For example, a farmer may want to create an alert for animals that may intrude on their farms and harm their crops or livestock. With the drone and other camera sensors taking visual inventory of the farm, farmers can process the video much more quickly to enable real-time actions to be taken.

In short, FarmBeats is an end-to-end IoT system that enables seamless data collection for agriculture, and then applies AI and Machine Learning techniques to turn this data into actionable insights that can power precision farming.

Looking Ahead to the Next Generation of Digital Farming

Our vision is to empower every farmer with affordable digital agriculture techniques, to take confusion and guesswork out of farmers’ daily activities and improve yield to help feed the world. For this to happen, we need to scale the connectivity opportunity with help from the spectrum regulators so that TV Whitespaces can be adopted worldwide.

Microsoft has also made a commitment with the Airband Initiative to connect 3 million rural Americans to broadband by 2022, with TV Whitespaces as a key enabling technology.

The second barrier to entry is cost. Project FarmBeats has taken steps to address this by lowering costs of sensors, drones and cloud technology for smallholder farmers to benefit.

For widespread impact, we need to do more. Just as local governments have subsidised agricultural equipment, we believe technologies like FarmBeats for precision agriculture should also be considered an essential tool and subsidised for use.

Lastly, we need to address the resource and education gap in emerging markets. These farmers may not have smartphones or the education and training to interpret the data. We need to create advisories that accompany the data, to suggest recommendations needed  based on the weather patterns or soil activities.

The future of farming hinges on solving the data problem with connectivity and resources to collect and interpret the data. We need to collectively take steps today, which starts with underscoring the urgency of connectivity in rural areas, working with technology providers and local governments to drive down the cost of data collection sensors and programs to advance education around using digital farming techniques globally.

Featured photo credit: Microsoft

Agricultural Innovations to Shape Future of Farming Highlighted at FAO

Innovation and technology have critical roles to play if smallholder farmers across the world are to become more productive and sustainable.

This year’s FAO International Symposium on Innovation for Family Farmers in Rome brought together innovators, farmers and policymakers to discuss how we can best combine farmers’ knowledge with the latest technology to meet these goals.

A side event co-hosted by Farming First, the International Agri-Food Network and Government of Nigeria, explored some of the best transformative technologies making farming more efficient and productive, while achieving agroecological outcomes.

The recent UN General Assembly Resolution on Agricultural Technology for Sustainable Development recognized “the need to further enhance the linkages between agricultural technology and agroecological principles, such as recycling, resource use efficiency, reducing external inputs, diversification, integration, soil health and synergies, in order to design sustainable farming systems that strengthen the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment for food security and nutrition, enhance productivity, improve nutrition, conserve the natural resource base and attain more sustainable and innovative food systems.” 

Following a successful prior event at FAO during the Committee on World Food Security, this event brought together a global panel of experts to discuss how innovation and agroecology can work together hand in hand.

Jack Froese, President of the Canadian Canola Growers Association, spoke about the role technology can play in helping reducing waste and helping increase farmers’ incomes. He outlined how new plant breeding has helped to reduce post-harvest losses by keeping plant pods intact and seed ready for harvest.

Speakers addressed solutions that apply to farms of all sizes and regions. Thavy Chumni Un Staal of BASF spoke about the power digital technologies can have for small-scale farmers.

Paul Wagstaff, Senior Agriculture Advisor at Self Help Africa agreed, adding that farmers needed to have a range of appropriate technologies at their disposal to become sustainable farmers.

“Farmers need choices of innovations,” he commented.

He highlighted Self Help Africa’s work on conservation agriculture, in which farmers are supported to improve soil health through intercropping and minimum soil disturbance.

Shiv Kumar Agrawal, a lentil breeder at ICARDA, highlighted the importance innovation can play in helping to drive crop diversity and drive food systems change.

He highlighted ICARDA’s breeding work that has shortened the growing season for pulses and legumes, allowing them to fit into crop rotations with rice.

This innovation goes beyond simply increasing productivity. Agrawal added that innovation could bring other positive outcomes. ”This is good for the environment and for nutrition.”

The event also brought to the fore the role of next generation farmers in promoting the wider use of technology.

Agusdin Pulungan, President of the Indonesian Farmers’ Society Organisation, spoke about the important role young people have in accelerating the uptake of technology.

“As a farmers’ organisation, we have championed ecological farming, more direct marketing, and working with youth in cities,” Pulungan said, adding that young people as a generation are crucial in driving the partnerships that are needed to deliver systemic change.

“We need to boost acceleration, and boost partnerships, in order to accelerate innovation.” 

Featured photo credit: Robynne Anderson

How Digital Farming Will Help Feed the World and Protect the Planet

Mark Young, Chief Technology Officer at Climate Corporation, looks at how digital technology can empower farmers, feed the world and protect the planet

Farmers face a dual challenge. How can they produce the food required to feed the world, while protecting the planet at the same time? The solution will rest on finding effective ways to minimize the losses of energy, water and nutrients associated with farming.

Digital agriculture – the use of data to make more informed decisions about managing agronomic operations – holds the key to increased efficiency on the farm.

It allows farmers to act with precision, known as precision agriculture. Drones, sensors and farm robots can tell us precisely where and how much water should be applied, keeping losses to an absolute minimum. They can spot pests and disease early and generate prescriptions to optimize soil and crop health.

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CFS Side Event: The Future of Farming

17th October 2018

Rome, Italy

As the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) gears up for the high-level panel of experts report on Agroecology and Other Innovations, Farming First will be co-hosting a side event that will highlight some of the best examples of innovations to advance agroecological outcomes in areas the UN is calling for including: recycling, resource use efficiency, reducing external inputs, diversification, integration, and soil health.

Speakers will discuss solutions that are applicable to farms of all sizes and regions, and identify ways to design sustainable farming systems that respect and benefit from the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment.

When: Wednesday, October 17, 13:00 to 14:30
Where: Philippines Room, FAO, Rome


Otmane Bennani Smires, OCP Group
H.E Maria Cristina Boldorini, Moderator
Craige Mackenzie, Global Farmer Network
Nancy Muchiri, African Agricultural Technology Foundation                                                                  Wade Barnes, Farmers Edge
Arianna Giuliodori, World Farmers’ Organisation
Chris Noble, Noble Farms
Rick White, Canadian Canola Growers Association

Follow the debate on Twitter #FutureOfFarming #CFS45 @farmingfirst

Youth Put Agritech Toolbox To The Test

This month, we asked members of the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD) network to explore which agricultural technologies can have the biggest impact in their home countries and regions.  The four respondents – each from a different continent around the world – used the brand new online model, “Agritech Toolbox”, produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which allows users to interact with original data showing expected yields of rice, wheat and maize between now and 2050 under various climate change scenarios from the use of 11 different agricultural technologies. Here is what they discovered… Continue reading