AI Is Making Smart Farms a Reality

May 16, 2019 - 7 minutes read

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With an ever-increasing number of mouths to feed and looming environmental challenges, the farming industry will need to adapt to the times if it is to succeed at supplying the world with resources. Fortunately, artificial intelligence (AI) offers a number of data-driven solutions to help the agricultural sector improve efficiency and productivity.

Constraints Can Yield Innovation

By 2050, the agriculture industry will need to be capable of supporting 9.8 billion people worldwide. To do so, a 60 percent increase in food production will be required.

Aside from this exponential population growth, drastic climate changes and other environmental obstacles will plague farmers’ output. Lastly, the sector also suffers from economic pressure in the form of labor shortages and the fact that crop yields and revenues have remained flat for the last 25 years while costs associated with production continue to rise.

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Fortunately, AI shows great promise in tackling these seemingly insurmountable challenges. Not only can it help boost productivity and profits, but it can also help with overcoming labor shortages and protecting the environment. With that being said, it’s safe to say that no other industry can benefit more from AI.

And these advantages couldn’t have come sooner; traditional methods would never be able to deal with these demands. In a way, how these events are unfolding is serendipitous — by identifying the most pressing matters facing farming beforehand, AI developers can now focus on solving the issues that are most important to address right now.

Smarter Farming = Sustainable Farming

The fact can’t be ignored that farming is a colossal consumer of resources like energy and water while being a major producer of soil erosion and carbon dioxide emissions. AI-driven technology aims to curb both of these issues by bringing more precision into the picture.

In the last century, the farming sector has only received incremental improvements. This is especially so for smaller farms. Overall, this has left the industry in dire need of better sustainable models. With algorithms that can learn from data, adjust accordingly, and improve over time without any human intervention needed, AI can accelerate solutions for these needs.

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For instance, AI can aid smaller farms in boosting profits by analyzing their plant data and producing a “profit map.” Such a map would elucidate the most efficient and effective ways for farmers to use a field. In turn, this maximizes both profit and yield. Best of all, each step, from planting seeds to harvesting, can be automated.

This AI-enabled precision is not only an enormous boon to farmers’ bottom lines, but it also allows for their operations to be more ecologically friendly and sustainable. Farmers no longer have to do guesswork when it comes to evaluating which crop is best to plant where and when. As a result, growing produce this way means the process isn’t as taxing on the earth as it was before. Everything is optimized. And everyone wins.

A Blooming Ecosystem of AI Agriculture

To help solve the problems facing farmers, startups around the world are cropping up that aim to simplify agricultural processes with AI-powered tools.

One such organization is the Small Robot Company. Based in Portsmouth, England (about 1.5 hours from London), the Small Robot Company wants to replace traditional tractor-based farming with more precise, environmentally friendly robots. Bowery Farming, another startup, seems to share this belief that robots are the future of farming; this company uses robotics to cultivate indoor crops. So far, Bowery Farming has raised $90 million from investors.

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Of course, the yield of a farmer’s work is highly dependent on their foresight. To help sharpen this, a startup named CiBO Technologies is using AI, data analytics, and statistical modeling to run simulations of varying agricultural conditions. Last year, CiBO raised $30 million in its Series B round of funding.

But it isn’t only startups that are getting in on the agricultural action. A recent article from the New York Times shows that academic institutions are also eager to help as well. For example, Carnegie Mellon University is working on small robots to help a farm near its Pittsburgh campus become a “boutique, cutting-edge farm, enabled by technology, that produces great food.”

Small Robots, Big Potential

Currently, Small Robot Company has three robots to help it carry out its agricultural revolution: Tom, Dick, and Harry. Not only can they care for crops autonomously, but they also give each plant individualized attention. This means each plant only gets the nutrients it needs, resulting in optimal yield and no waste.

As far as environmental endeavors go, Tom, Dick, and Harry serve as low-carbon alternatives to large tractors. Instead of plowing, the robots punch-plant. This radically reduces the amount of soil runoff and water pollution that are usually caused by tractors. it’s a sorely needed change to the status quo; traditional arable methods, plowing, and blanket chemical spraying all end up polluting far more than is needed.

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Lastly, it’s worth remembering that these robots can work 24/7/365. So when labor is short or only time-consuming, monotonous tasks are left to do, farmers can free up some of their time by letting the robots take over. Small Robot Company’s robots utilize 95 percent less energy and 90 percent fewer chemical than comparable traditional methods.

An Agricultural Revolution Is Underway

All of these benefits have culminated in a growing trend known as farming-as-a-service (FaaS). Basically, FaaS are farm management solutions that prioritize data-driven solutions in order to improve productivity and efficiency. By converting fixed upfront costs into variable ongoing expenses, FaaS allows farms of all sizes to tap into the potential of new technologies and paradigms.

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With more mouths to feed and threatening environmental challenges, an upgrade to the status quo of farming is well-warranted. And thanks to AI, this revolution is already underway.

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