Redefining and Resetting Expectations for Agriculture

By Dr. Naira Hovakimyan, Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Intelinair

Five years ago tech developer and entrepreneur Marc Andreessen made the prediction that “software is eating the world,” meaning that new technology and software advances will overturn traditional business models in every industry. His prediction is largely playing out as evidenced by such service companies as Uber and Airbnb that have revolutionized their sectors.

We’re in a period of exponential growth in many technologies. Look at cell phones. Prior to the iPhone era, mobile phones were primarily just a phone. Remember the excitement of visiting an Internet site or checking email right from your phone? Such tasks were unheard of! Then, the iPhone revolutionized what phones could do, redefined our expectations for what they might do in the future, and sparked an explosion of applications that were beyond what anyone could have ever imagined.

Agriculture is on the brink of a digital revolution that I predict will lead to its own exponential growth and deliver solutions we never thought possible. Just as the iPhone created new expectations for how people can use a mobile phone, digitization is resetting expectations for how food will be produced and farms will be managed in the future.

At Intelinair, we’ve developed the AgMRI™ solution with a goal of bringing together two technologies that can have the potential to spur exponential growth — starting with digital aerial imagery provided by drones, aircraft and satellites, then using deep learning algorithms. This powerful combination can deliver actionable insights that help farmers make decisions that improve both productivity and profitability.

It begins with high quality aerial imagery. Drones provide the most flexibility and the ability to capture high resolution imagery at low altitudes, but imagery from satellites and fixed-wing aircraft provide good quality images at a lower cost.

Farmers can look at those images to find an “anomaly,” or spot that seem suspicious, perhaps an area in the field that is weedy or has low plant population.

The second component of digitization – imagery analytics – will make that process of reviewing aerial imagery simpler and more powerful. It truly represents another leap for agriculture. Analytics powered by “deep learning” algorithms will allow us to not only look at the images we get from satellite, aircraft or drones, but to produce actionable insights. We will be able to detect an anomaly in the field, and more importantly, will be able to address it quickly. For example, we could see a new growth of Palmer Amaranth and catch it early enough to treat in a single spot before it becomes a yield-robbing problem across the entire field.

The exponential growth in smartphone technologies redefined and reset our expectations for what was possible on a phone. None of us can predict exactly what will happen as we prepare for the digital revolution in agriculture, but I am confident it will exponentially enhance the ability of farmers to bring more food from every acre to market and take better care of the environment than ever before, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Dr. Naira Hovakimyan is the W. Grafton and Lillian B. Wilkins Professor of Mechanical Science and Engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director of the UIUC Intelligent Robotics Lab, and director of the UIUC Advanced Controls Research Lab. She is Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Intelinair.

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