mixed-reality-for-farming-managed-solutionHow mixed reality and machine learning are driving innovation in farming

By Jeff Kavanaugh as written on techcrunch.com
Farming is, by far, the most mature industry mankind has created. Dating back to the dawn of civilization, farming has been refined, adjusted and adapted — but never perfected. We, as a society, always worry over the future of farming. Today, we even apply terms usually reserved for the tech sector — digital, IoT, AI and so on. So why are we worrying?
The Economist, in its Q2 Technology Quarterly issue, proclaims agriculture will soon need to become more manufacturing-like in order to feed the world’s growing population. Scientific American reports crops will soon need to become more drought resistant in order to effectively grow in uncertain climates. Farms, The New York Times writes, will soon need to learn how to harvest more with less water.
And they’re right. If farms are to continue to feed the world’s population they will have to do so in manners both independent of, and accommodating to, the planet’s changing and highly variable climes. That necessitates the smart application of both proven and cutting-edge technology. It necessitates simplified interfaces. And, of course, it necessitates building out and applying those skills today.
Fortunately, the basics for this future are being explored today. For example, vertical farming, a technique allowing farmers to grow and harvest crops in controlled environments, often indoors and in vertical stacks, has exploded in both popularity and potential. In fact, this method has been shown to grow some crops 20 percent faster with 91 percent less water. Genetically modified seeds, capable of withstanding droughts and floods, are making harvests possible even in the driest of conditions, like those found in Kenya.

If farms are to continue to feed the world’s population they will have to do so in manners both independent of, and accommodating to, the planet’s changing and highly variable climes.

But managing such progress, whether indoors or in the field, is a challenge unto itself. Monitoring acidity, soil nutrients and watering time for each plant for optimal growth is, at best, guesswork or, at worst, an afterthought. But it’s here new interactive technologies may shine. A small family of sensors can monitor a plant’s vitals and provide real-time updates to a remote server. Artificial intelligence’s younger cousin, machine learning, can study these vitals and the growth of some crops to anticipate future needs. Finally, augmented reality (AR), where informative images overlay or augment everyday objects, can help both farmers and gardeners to monitor and manage crop health.
Plant.IO* is one system that shows how it can be done: A cube of PVC pipes provides the frame for sensors, grow-lights, cameras and more. A remote server dedicated to machine learning analyzes growth and growth conditions and anticipates future plant needs. A set of AR-capable glasses provides to the user an image, or a representation, of the plant, regardless of location. If the AR device is capable, like the Microsoft HoloLens, it also can provide a means to interact with the plant by adjusting fertilizer, water flow, growth lights and more.
This methodology, when paired with gamification, may lend itself to a new, simplified form of crop management. Together, AI and AR make it simple and fun for everyone from adults to adolescents to monitor and manage their own gardens from home and afar. This idea is at the heart of Plant.IO: a fun, workable solution for an agriculture-based scenario where digital information can overlay a physical object or area without losing context.
In fact, this sort of management system could extend beyond gardens and farms. Any scenario where a physical environment exists alongside measurable data could, potentially, benefit from an AR/AI deployment. Industrial operations, such as warehouse management, are a promising area. Industrial farming, where the combination of AI and infrared cameras to measure a field’s health, is another.
With the right formula of AR and AI, users can monitor and nurture plants from virtually anywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter if they’re growing plants on their kitchen counter, or preparing for their next harvest. Better yet, they can do this with the latest information on a plant’s acidity, nutrient, watering levels and more in an environmentally sound manner.
The first industrial revolution helped us go from the fields to the cities with the productivity gains from machine farming. This industrial revolution is using machine learning and other digital “implements” to take farming even further — and to feed the world.
*Disclosure: Plant.IO is an open-source digital farming project created by Infosys.

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Alex Eaton: Helping small farmers turn animal waste into clean energy

By Vanessa Ho as written on news.microsoft.com
When Alex Eaton started his company in Mexico to help small farmers, his timing couldn’t have been worse. It was 2010, the global economy was fragile, Mexico’s drug war was peaking and swine flu was pandemic.
Then there was Eaton’s challenge of introducing new technology – a system that turns animal waste into clean energy – to old-school farmers. His company was lean, with employees building the system in a cramped garage at night and selling it directly to farmers by day. They traveled on cheap “chicken buses,” which sometimes also carried livestock.
“I slept on a lot of farmers’ dirt floors,” says Eaton. “In terms of challenges, we certainly did not have any shortages. It was a radical, bootstrapping operation, and it made us stronger as a company, because we generated a culture in which you wouldn’t have worked for us if you weren’t passionate.”
Six years later, Eaton’s company, Sistema Biobolsa, has become a thriving business with a global mission in environmental sustainability and social justice. It has installed more than 3,000 of its digester systems, which now serve 20,000 people in Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa.

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“We want small farmers to grow, improve their productivity and efficiency, and grow into the important and sustainable food producers that they can be,” Eaton says.
With the help of Microsoft tools for productivity and collaboration, the company boosts local economies by enabling farmers to turn cow and pig waste into biogas that fuels stoves and other equipment. Sistema Biobolsa’s affordable, scalable digesters also help produce an organic, nutrient-rich manure, so farmers don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers and can further save money.
“A huge disadvantage of being a small farmer today is you live in an environment filled with flies and horrible odor,” with animal waste contaminating rivers, lakes and watersheds, says Eaton, who grew up on a small farm in New Hampshire. “We take that waste and turn it into a clean, renewable energy source.”
All features of the digester — a durable-membrane bag in which microorganisms break down waste anaerobically — are designed to serve farmers. Black membrane absorbs heat for faster composting and efficient piping makes the system easy to use. The company’s microfinancing program, run in partnership with nonprofit Kiva, allows farmers to easily invest in the system with a no-interest loan. For many farmers, it’s the first time they’ve had access to credit, helping them grow and diversify their business.


“We have been saving a lot of money with this Sistema Biobolsa,” says Herles Cortez, a pig farmer in Puebla, Mexico, who installed a digester about 18 months ago. “We buy very little gas for the business anymore. Before, gas was a big expense for us.”
He says the system produces enough gas to fuel the family’s stove as well as a barn heater that keeps the piglets warm at night, leading to healthier animals. His farm is also more pleasant with less odor. “Take a look around now; there are no flies. It’s cleaner now,” he says, showing his farm recently to visitors.
As Sistema Biobolsa grows, its team of 30 employees relies on Skype to collaborate across four offices in Mexico and Nicaragua and with hundreds of installers and promoters around the world. Skype has helped the company install digesters in remote areas, from the Andean region in South America to pilot programs in Ghana, Nigeria and Madagascar. The company is also developing new pilot programs in East Africa and India.
“With collaborators all around the world, we use Skype over regular landlines,” says Eaton, a longtime Skype user. “This is completely non-negotiable for us. Being able to put together a number of people virtually and seeing people online really makes the connections a lot more tangible.”
Windows 10 also powers new computers for field staffers, and Office 365 helps Eaton work on finances and communications wherever he is, whether in his office in Mexico City or on the road.
“We couldn’t live without Microsoft Office, so I have Word and Excel open at all times,” he says. The tools help him reach his goals of empowering small farmers to work sustainably and thrive financially.
He recalls how the company years ago had helped a small dairy farm in Mexico, run by a woman whose husband had left to work in the U.S. and send money home.
When the struggling farm started using a digester, its 10 cows began creating gas that fueled a pasteurizing machine. That allowed the family to sell pasteurized milk and yogurt, make more money and buy more cows.
“It was an incredible transformation of a typical Mexican farm, which was essentially in a death spiral and being abandoned. It started using modern technology, serving the community and helping the family get ahead,” Eaton says.
“As we continue to grow, it is exciting to think about the potential to create more stories like this at hundreds of thousands of small farms throughout Latin America.”


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