Artificial Intelligence Is Changing The Farms of the Future

by Sohini Bagchi    Sep 06, 2017

vivek

The farming industry is on the cusp of a so-called ‘technological revolution’. With drones, robots and intelligent monitoring systems now successfully being used in research and field trials, artificial intelligence, or machine learning, is set to revolutionise the future of farming as the next phase of Industrial Revolution in agriculture is on the horizon.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the global population is set to reach 9.2 billion by the year 2050. This means that the global agriculture sector is under more strain than ever with 2 billion more mouths to feed within the next 33 years. In such a scenario, a number of innovative agritech startups are coming up with increasingly accessible technology to transform the daily operations of the traditional family farms.

Vivek Rajkumar, the CEO-founder of Aibono, an agritech startup aimed holistically at turning ‘small’ to ‘smart’ in agriculture. The 30-something Social-Tech Entrepreneur who claims to be a third-generation farmer, quotes from the movie Martian, “There was a need to Science the hell out of Farming.” His Agritech Startup is transforming the model of agriculture from the ground up, attacking its inefficiencies by leveraging technologies, IoT, Crop Science and AI for farmers helping them grow profitable agri produce.

One of the biggest roadblocks to the growth of Indian agriculture is the low levels of yields. The predominant causes of low productivity are poor access to irrigation facilities; use of low quality seeds, low adoption of improved technology and lack of knowledge dissemination on improved agricultural practices. The challenge of small landholding size impacts diversification indices negatively. Technology and its access is a critical factor for diversified agriculture.

CXOToday: Can you share your views on how intelligent devices, such as robots and drones are enabling smart farming worldwide.

Rajkumar: There’s now worldwide pursuit towards Decision Agriculture powered by Data Sciences and Farm Analytics. We’re moving on from Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture. It’s an exciting time and we’d like to call it Agri 4.0 or the 4th Industrial Revolution in farming. To set the context right, Precision Agriculture wave of the last decade is nothing short of impressive, from making inaccurate decisions on agro-chemical inputs without measurements, to technology around soil measurements and multispectral imaging of fields that enabled better decisions on agrochemicals, improving yields globally. Yet these remain been more congenial for large farms with economies of scale rather than smaller holdings.

While the last decade saw more broad-based decisions at farms, Industry 4.0, Intelligent Devices and Farm AI is rapidly enabling more granular decisions as well as in implementing these decisions in the farms. For example, “Variable Rate Fertigation” with a GPS enabled sprayer robot can vary the quantity of application per plant based on the ‘need’ at a hyperlocal level rather than treating 20,000 seedling in an acre of land as equals and applying the same quantity of fertilizer per plant; significantly increasing productivity, nutrient usage efficiency and an increased grower revenue. There are some good examples of start-ups from the West making farm robots that selectively removes weeds from Lettuce beds using image processing or apply herbicides.

The real potential in intelligent devices is in how it decentralizes scale to make efficient farming practices and higher productivity available for a farmer of smaller scale. Drones are replacing larger airplanes for crop dusting and satellites for imaging and Robots as a Service (RaaS) using machine learning and AI are replacing larger tractors. This era will be a game changer for a nation of small farms such as India, but for us, Robots and Intelligent devices will be ‘Part 2’ of Indian-ising Agriculture 4.0. The Part 1 is Information Services and AI.

CXOToday: How is it different in India? In a cost sensitive market like India, how can small entities afford these technologies?

Rajkumar: India holds the second largest agricultural land in the world, yet India’s agricultural landscape comprises 85% of small and marginal farmers operating on land holding of 2 acres of less. The average Indian small farmer, representing a 200 Million population, is therefore averse of capital or infrastructure spends, let alone intelligent or informed methods of farming. Lack of economies of scale had made modern technology, resources, experts or farm measurements unaffordable.

However, the 4th Revolution of Farming presents a wonderful opportunity to us, a nation of small farmers to bid adieu to poor yields and bad farm economics, that has been plaguing us for decades. 

When it comes to India, we are entering an era of Internet Enabled Shared Services. For us, the answer in farming was probably never Capital. It is Services, Sharing & Data. We’ve got the fastest growth of affordable internet, smartphone adoption and the world’s largest population of youth (a 200 million) who can gather and interpret data from farms. I’d say the stage is set for Agri 4.0 and to turn our small farmers to smart farmers. Adoption of technology and the superior yields of Agri 4.0 will happen in two stages in India.Stage 1: At an Information level (now-2022): Shared Services & Equipment, Data Science and AI that helps small farmers make intelligent and informed decisions all the way from choice of crops to hedging risks to precise day-to-day agrochemical application for maximising yields and return of efforts.Stage 2: At a Hardware Level (2022-future): Farmers sharing smarter farm machinery and hardware with small form factor and higher degree of intelligence enabled by AI & Cloud, affordable for small holdings.

- CXOToday: Do you think farmers would be willing to trust such high-end tech solutions and researchers more than their age-old traditions?

Rajkumar: In our experience, for a farmer, seeing is believing. Better yields, better harvests, uniformly looking farm as opposed to sparsely spread out crops - are a few critical aspects that triggers a farmer’s attention. Despite age old traditional methods, a farmer today is more dependent on NPK fertilizers from the local store.

With respect to high-end tech solutions, Aibono provides Smart Farming Services, shared among Collectives of farmers that Aibono aggregates. Farmers share Sensors, Farm Managers, Data, Intelligence, Farm Experts, Tech Support, & Farm Equipment backed by AI and Data Analytics and in our Lab Farms, we demonstrate data led decisions. We earn the trust of a farmer and integrate ourselves around him and his community, which makes our Smart Farming Collectives both people and technology centric, and on the Cloud and on the Ground.

Also, the farmers are a sweet bunch - if they see results and get to like something, they spread the word our fast. Word of mouth is even faster than an app making the runs in an urban community. They are very results-driven and value science, agricultural expertise and modern methods. 

- CXOToday: What was the idea behind Aibono? How exactly are you helping the farming agricultural sector in scaling up and remain sustainable?

Rajkumar: Aibono began in the niche area of providing Farm Management as-a-Service whereby, a farmer gets to outsource his entire measurement, production management and decision-making processes to a Service. We provide this service on a sharing basis deploying a shared Farm Manager along with shared instruments mapping the data onto cloud. Our centrally managed Data Science and Recommendation Engines enabled our by Data Scientists and agronomists give precise day-to-day interventions to farmers, enabling a 30-50% increase in yields.

Further, we evolved this model into incorporating what we call ‘Smart Farming Collectives™’ where groups of farmers collectively produce a uniform supply of a given mix of produce by sharing decisions and opportunities of choice of crops and collectively sharing resources. Thus they don’t compete amongst each other by producing the same crop, and the collective also enables the farmer to reach the end market. We’ve generated +1000 harvests, with 30-50% higher yields and consistently good incomes that come to the doorstep of the farmer. The sustainability of how we have interpreted Agri 4.0 for India, is really in the improved P&Ls of the farmer, our ally, enabled through our Smart Farming Collectives.

- CXOToday: At the moment, what are some of the biggest challenges in agricultural practices you are trying to solve with technology?

Rajkumar: One of the biggest roadblocks to the growth of Indian agriculture is the low levels of yields. The predominant causes of low productivity are poor access to irrigation facilities; use of low quality seeds, low adoption of improved technology and lack of knowledge dissemination on improved agricultural practices. The challenge of small landholding size impacts diversification indices negatively. All are triggered by economies of scale of a small farm. Farming yields in India can be as low as 20%-30% of Global benchmarks and our farming community has been cornered for decades due to lack of scale.

Technology and its access is a critical factor for diversified agriculture. With Internet Enabled Shares Services and our Smart Farming Collectives, we leverage Sharing & Aggregation to re-create economies of scale and increase yields by an order. We don’t stop there, we go the whole length to get the farmer a buyer and the produce a rightful place in the value chain, an enable a better income and return on effort that justifies his efforts. And, everybody wins.

- CXOToday: Can you give an instance where smart modern technologies such as big data, IoT and AI are being used to resolve some of these issues?

Rajkumar: Farm Analytics is one of the hottest drivers of the farming industry right now. The end consumer in agriculture is not always very aware of what trends have arrived now. Take this company called Solum Inc, an Iowa-based Agri-Data science company, whose soil sciences arm got acquired by weather & farming data analytics company called Climate Corporation, which again was acquired by Monsanto for $930 million, which in turn got acquired by Baeyer- The world’s largest agrochemical company- for $66 billion. All of this, in the last couple of years.

- CXOToday: What technologies are you offering farmers to maintain and scale crop diversity and intensive farming?

Rajkumar: An average vegetable farmer in India grow 4-6 crops cycle a year. Aibono’s farmers grow up to 24 crops per year with ERP Assisted Farming. Crop management for a small landholding farmer is quite confusing. In a Factory, ERP can enable small teams managing simultaneous batches, SKU variants and changeovers handle complex processes and reminders with ease. We provide Assisted ERP services for complex farm management processes, that not only enables our collectives of small farmers to push beyond 6 crops a year to 24 crops/year - even though it makes the farmer’s Crop Management and maintaining diversity 4x complex. The benefits however are significantly better portfolio risk management and more uniform earnings that outweigh the hassles.  

CXOToday: What do you see as the future of farming in terms of using smart technologies?

Rajkumar: India, as a country, has one of the largest Youth population, with a complex diversity and an infamous Jugaad mind that can adopt new tools and frugally solve problems and now we have taken the world by surprise in our ability to be the fastest adopters of smartphones and the internet. There are 400 million smartphone users in India – and aside just a fraction in cities, our use base is far beyond urban. We are after all the IT hub of the world.

The industry so far is depended heavily on scale of the user and therefore struggled to improve lives of small farmers in India. Agri 4.0 is perfect for an Evergreen Revolution in India, favouring small farmers and leveraging the IT & Smartphone Savvy Youth as a bridge between our farmers and cloud. Driven by internet, commoditised smartphones, smart sensors, AI and Cloud, Agri 4.0 is about Scale at the Cyberspace but Distributed in the physical space. Aibono as a company is marching towards a Self-Service model, where the farmers will be able to enrol for Shared services, ERP, shared equipment, farmer collective and intelligent market access and supply chain, where they will be enabled to sign-up and operate by themselves. 

The farmer of the future will not have to go out of his way to access AI, Cloud, Farm Robots, Market Access or an Income that justifies his efforts. He will be served at his farm thanks to concepts like cyber physical share farming.