Why has Microsoft chosen agribusiness to demonstrate their newest innovations?
The use of technology in farming is nothing new. Farmers have long used different types of tech to improve yields, boost productivity and add value. From the invention of the corn picker in 1850, to rotary combines, to the use of software and mobile devices today - technology and farming go hand-in-hand.
But what's next? Microsoft, the global technology company, seem to have an answer. In their recent global marketing campaign This Is Now, Microsoft highlights the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) in agribusiness.
Agribusiness stands to profit massively from AI. The technology promises to make companies more immune to the unpredictability of farming, thereby increasing yields and improving profitability. Despite this potential, many companies still rely on archaic operational tools; such as spreadsheets, out-of-date software, or even paper-based methods.
One such example is FarmBeats; a Microsoft project to build unique solutions to enable data-driven farming using low-cost sensors, drones, vision and machine learning algorithms.
Farmers can use AI to help predict yields. Sensors, drones and cameras can be used to capture data on specific characteristics from the farm, such as soil moisture, soil PH and other farm activity. AI can “learn” from analysing all of this data. For example; using an AI system to analyse 1000’s of photographs of crops at different states of irrigation, along with data on the yields produced for each photograph will enable the AI system build up an internal model of what is likely to constitute yields for any given field condition. AIs are capable of learning, reasoning and self-correcting and, over time, this model can be refined, to effectively better itself as more and more data is added to the model. This is known as machine learning.
And this is where the magic happens. Artificial intelligence uses all these sources of data to help farmers implement precision agriculture by augmenting data. Augmented data describes any information that’s made more useful through AI. This gives farmers the potential to create interactive maps that detail soil health and pH levels, along with a variety of other intelligent data all captured directly from the farm itself.
But the real power of AI comes from its ability to offer solutions. For example, by analysing current and historic pH levels, AI can suggest how much fertiliser should be used to optimize growing conditions. This could help reduce wastage and limit costs while maximising yields.
Artificial intelligence enables precision agriculture in multiple ways, based on crucial variables such as irrigation levels, temperature and humidity. It also provides microclimate predictions, based on wind direction and wind speed, as well as making predictions on non-captured data such as leaf wetness.
For agribusiness, there are multiple benefits. With accurate predictions, based on farm data, farmers can determine when and where to plant, treat and harvest crops - maximising yields to significantly increase profit margins.
Furthermore, with insights into crop conditions, they can drastically save on inputs such as fertilisers and chemicals by optimizing usage and avoiding misdiagnosis.
With actionable insights into soil health, companies can be assured their produce is meeting food safety and quality control measures; helping to ensure they produce compliant, high-quality goods and reducing the risk of a food-borne outbreak.
Perhaps most appealing, is that all this data is accessible via any internet-connected device. It is also easy to navigate thanks to intuitive interfaces built specifically for the industry, can be used offline and stores historical farm data for long-term analyses.
A central message of Microsoft’s campaign is that the use of AI-driven tech on farms is becoming a necessity as food production struggles to prepare for the demands of a growing population. And that this presents a huge opportunity for agribusiness to scale in order to cater to this demand, thereby increasing profit margins.
Considering a recent UN report suggesting agricultural production will have to grow 70% by 2050 to meet projected demand, the availability of AI-driven technologies is a welcomed progression.