Microsoft partners with USDA to help farmers leverage AI

Microsoft partners with USDA to help farmers leverage AI
Data-driven agriculture programme ‘FarmBeats’ will facilitate more sustainable food production

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Microsoft has partnered with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a new pilot to help farmers leverage artificial intelligence (AI) in food production.

The organisations want to help farms cut costs, increase yields and sustainably grow climate change-resilient crops. They will do this through a data-driven agriculture programme called FarmBeats.

FarmBeats uses geographic information system mapping software from Microsoft partner Esri to collect data from sensors, drones, satellites and tractors. It then feeds this data into cloud-based artificial intelligence models that provide a detailed picture of farm conditions. However, as most farms have little or no internet access, FarmBeats transmits data through the unused broadcasting frequencies between television channels, to an edge device at the farm and onto the Microsoft cloud.

The USDA is piloting the programme at its 7,000-acre farm at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, US. Its fields are fitted with a network of sensors that measure the soil temperature, humidity and acidity that result from cover crops, plants which are grown off-season to limit weeds, manage pests, prevent erosion and improve soil for the main crops.

The sensors also track water levels in the soil, which help determine how much water is retained and inform water budgets. A weather station tracks air temperature, precipitation and wind speed, and a tractor fitted with sensors assesses crop heights, biomass and greenness, which all indicate plant health.

If successful, the project will enable farmers to see the data generated by FarmBeats in real time. USDA researchers can then use that data to provide web-based tools and site-specific insights to farmers to help them better allocate resources and refine their methods.

“We can’t simply double our acreage to produce this food,” says Dan Roberts, research leader at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Research Laboratory, located at the Beltsville centre. “What we need to do is develop more environmentally benign crop production systems — the new green revolution, if you will.

“As a result, farmers will have a quicker and more innovative way to implement practices that directly benefit the climate, and the partnership will also provide an avenue for them to cost-effectively bring new agriculture products to market based on good science.”

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