Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

USDA pilots IoT data and AI-driven farm

William Payne
October 17, 2019

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) together with Microsoft and California based geographical modelling specialist Esri has developed an IoT data and AI driven farm.

The 7,000-acre farm at the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland is using FarmBeats, a project that aims to harness data and artificial intelligence to help farmers cut costs, increase yields and sustainably grow crops that are more resilient to climate change.

“We can’t simply double our acreage to produce this food,” said Dan Roberts, research leader at the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Research Laboratory, located at the Beltsville centre. “There’s a lot of competition for arable land with urbanisation. What we need to do is develop more environmentally benign  crop production systems — the new green revolution, if you will.”

FarmBeats collects data from multiple sources, such as sensors, drones, satellites and tractors and feeds it into cloud-based artificial intelligence models that provide a detailed picture of conditions on the farm. Since most farms have little or no internet access, FarmBeats transmits data via TV white spaces, the unused broadcasting frequencies between television channels, to an edge device at the farm and onto the Microsoft cloud.

The USDA pilot is testing out FarmBeats technology on two crop systems experiments at the Beltsville farm. If all goes as planned, the functionality will be rolled out to 200-plus farms in a nationwide research network, from small family farms to large commercial operations. The farmers will be able to see the data generated by FarmBeats in real time; the USDA researchers will use that data to inform their own work and provide web-based tools and site-specific insights to farmers to help them better allocate resources and refine their methods.

The pilot is focused on cover crops, grown during the off-season to limit weeds, manage pests, prevent erosion and improve soil for the main crops. At the Beltsville farm, sensors are measuring soil temperature, humidity and acidity. The sensors also track water levels in the soil, which help determine how much water is retained after increasingly common heavy rainfalls and in turn, inform water budgets for a growing season. A weather station tracks air temperature, precipitation and wind speed, and a tractor with an array of sensors will assess crop heights, biomass and greenness — an indicator of plant health.

The project is using geographic information system mapping software from California-based company Esri. Microsoft and Esri joined forces to provide the USDA with a platform designed to feed the world’s growing population in an environmentally sustainable way, Esri President Jack Dangermond said.

“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,” he said.

Combining sensor data with imagery from drones and satellites will help the USDA researchers better understand how soil conditions, weather and management intersect to drive crop performance and long-term conservation of water and soil. Armed with that detailed information, they can analyse conditions and pinpoint decision-making down to sections of a field.

“There’s so much spatial variability in a field, from soil, topography and climate perspectives, that we need the data that help us provide site-specific solutions,” said Steven Mirsky, an analyst who is spearheading the USDA pilot.

“The only way we can do that is by collecting data across broad climate, soil and management regimes,” he said. “That requires extensive amounts of data, AI and machine learning applications so we can put that all together and make site-specific solutions for farmers.”

FarmBeats was started in 2015 by Ranveer Chandra, now the chief scientist at Microsoft Azure Global, who had worked on his grandparents’ farm in India as a child and saw data as a way to help farmers grow better food and improve their livelihoods. The initiative grew out of an employee hackathon project to become a signature project within Microsoft AI for Earth, a program that provides cloud and AI tools to organisations for sustainable solutions development for environmental challenges.

The USDA pilot will be an important test case, at a high-profile research farm near the nation’s capital, for the program. FarmBeats is in private preview and being used at a handful of farms in several states. Matthew Kerner, general manager for industries and blockchain at Microsoft Azure Global, said Microsoft is continuing to work with device manufacturers to integrate FarmBeats capabilities into their products and hopes to make the program generally available in about six months.

“We believe that precision techniques and being able to use data to make the world better is a pattern that can be applied across many industries,” he said. “Behind FarmBeats is our desire to apply that to agriculture.”