Food for thought: How Microsoft’s FarmBeats may help feed the planet

By 2050, the earth’s population is projected to be 9.7 billion, up from the current 7.5 billion. One of the most pressing questions weighing on us today is how will we feed this growing population. Considering the existing levels of farm productivity and water availability, this is going to be an uphill task, to say the least.

This scenario looks like a piece for a horror or futuristic movie, where people kill each other for food, or even worse, turn into vampires so they can get a constant supply of human blood for food.

Before we let our imaginations run wild, let’s understand the gravity of our situation.

First off, agricultural production has to double to feed this growing population. At the same time, the amount of arable or cultivable land is going down because people need more space to live. We’re not only clearing forests for our urbanization needs, but also the surrounding farming lands. Unfortunately, this means we probably won’t have enough land for growing crops. The other huge aspect is decreasing level of water tables. A growing population needs more water for their needs, and this is causing the depletion of water levels world over. Given these constraints, how can we double farm productivity?

Technology may be our savior.

Historically, every agricultural spurt we’ve had has been due to advancements made in a related technology. In other words, new technologies have always helped farmers improve their yield, streamline their farming practices to meet the emerging challenges of that time, and to make farming a financially viable option.

This time, too, we may be on the threshold of a new agricultural revolution, driven by the Internet of Things (IoT). Many companies like Microsoft are already working on using IoT for improving agricultural yield. Result is the emergence of IoT platforms such as FarmBeats that addresses many of the existing limitations and problems prevalent in agriculture today.

A brief look at FarmBeatsfarmbeats

FarmBeats is an end-to-end IoT platform for agriculture that includes sensors, UAV drones, connectivity pieces, and machine learning-based backend analytics software.

FarmBeats can be broken down into two broad areas, namely,

  • Data-acquisition system consisting of drones and sensors
  • Data-analysis system consisting of connectivity pieces, cloud storage, and predictive analysis

Both these systems work in tandem to provide data-driven solutions to existing agricultural problems.

How does it help farmers?

FarmBeats is slowly gaining ground among small farmers because of the many benefits that come with it. Let’s see how it helps farmers.

Improves connectivity

Connectivity, or the lack of it, is an important problem that is widespread in farms today. If you look through Google maps, you’ll see that most farms are located in the middle of nowhere. Though such a remote location is essential for farming, it also makes connectivity that much more difficult, as it is virtually impossible to lay cables through such terrain. In fact, most farmers today depend on satellites and cellular connectivity to reach the outside world.

While cellular data and satellites are sufficient for checking emails and browsing websites, they are hardly enough for data-intensive platforms like IoT. Typically, IoT applications involve collection of large amounts of data through sensors, and sending them to a cloud system where this information is analyzed for meaningful results.

Such a system is almost impossible to implement because of the existing limited connectivity. For example, a 15-minute video has a file size of 4GB, and this can take forever to upload to a cloud. And sending multiple videos every day is simply out of question.

To overcome this impediment, Microsoft researchers came up with the idea of tapping into white-fi, a technology that uses unused TV spectrum for Internet connectivity. According to Ranveer Chandra, principal researcher at Microsoft, because rural areas are more widely spread out than urban areas, there is more unused TV spectrum available. So they decided to use this spectrum to send data-intensive files and videos, needed for FarmBeats, thereby circumventing the limited bandwidth problem. A positive outcome is that this technology is also expected to provide better connectivity for farmers so they can stay on top of real-time weather conditions and any other pertinent information.

Reduces cost

Two decades back, a new practice called precision farming was proposed. This practice was based on the fact that different areas of a farm have different conditions, so a one-size-fits-all approach to farming will not work. For example, some parts of the farm maybe more fertile than others, so they may need less fertilizer. When farmers know this information, they can put fertilizer in less-fertile areas to boost productivity. Such information would greatly help farmers to work differently in each area, so they can maximize farm productivity.

agricultural-productivity-with-iot

Though conceptually this practice was seen as revolutionary, it could not be implemented because getting the data needed for understanding the farm was difficult. It required heavy investment and advanced equipment — both of which were hard to find then, and even now, for that matter.  It is estimated that the average investment today is $8,000 for five sensors, not to mention the operating costs of this equipment. Such a large investment coupled with the non-availability of connectivity made precision farming prohibitive for farmers, and so it did not take off.

FarmBeats, in many ways, is based on precision farming, but the cost is greatly reduced. This system is set up in such a way that a PC collects videos from drones and sensors, analyzes them, extracts the pointers, and sends only these pointers to the cloud. As a result, there is no need for extensive bandwidth. Also, sensors are included as a part of FarmBeats, so farmers don’t have to worry about setup and operating costs. All these aspects have reduced the cost greatly for farmers, and they have made precision farming a reality today.

Provides a real-time and data-driven approach

FarmBeats gives farmers a real-time understanding of their farm conditions, allowing them to make better decisions. The data acquisition subsystem of FarmBeats takes information from sensors and drones, analyzes it, and provides a precise view of the farm conditions.

For example, FarmBeats makes it possible to know the soil pH, moisture retention rates, and the fertility rate in every inch of the farm, round the clock. Moreover, this information is presented in a visually appealing manner, so one look at the chart or report can give farmers an excellent idea of the existing ground conditions. Based on this information, they can take the necessary action needed to increase yield. Such a data-driven approach is accurate, and helps farmers address a problem even before it occurs. The result is greater yield per acre — something we absolutely need to meet our growing demand for food.

Improves ROI

Many farmers world over are ready to sell their fertile lands for the construction of buildings. Though this trend is more prominent in heavily populated countries like Bangladesh, India, and China, this trend is catching on in other parts of the world, too. If you look closely, what is it that drives farmers to give up their profession?

The answer obviously is money, or the lack of it. Farmers invest in their farm and pray that Mother Nature favors them. Unfortunately, climate changes have only increased this uncertainty for them, and in many cases, their crops get wiped out due to excess rain or drought. As a result, they are faced with a huge financial loss that in turn forces farmers to sell their land.

ROI Calculator Showing Investment Return Or Profitability

FarmBeats helps improve return on investment (ROI), so farmers get more produce for every dollar they spend. Such tools can be a giant boon for agriculture by enthusing more people to take up this profession.

Agriculture and technology can be combined to find solutions for our endless quest for food. In the past, agriculture and technology were seen as separate areas that had nothing to do with each other. In fact, agriculture has the lowest adoption of technology among most sectors. However, all that is changing with the emergence of IoT based platforms like FarmBeats. Hopefully, this will feed the planet and prevent humans from turning into bloodthirsty Draculas by 2050.

1 thought on “Food for thought: How Microsoft’s FarmBeats may help feed the planet”

  1. Hi. I am trying to find a way of gaining access to the Farmbeats platform here in Africa. We want to setup a service related Precision Farming solution but it is proving to be a “secret” solution. A lot of information on what it can do but how to access it is nowhere. Any pointers will be greatly appreciated.

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