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Farmers are using AI to spot pests and catch diseases — and many believe it’s the future of agriculture



  • Farmers are using artificial intelligence to help grow food by combatting disease and pests, oftentimes made worse by climate change, pesticide use, and monocropping.
  • Drones and other robots equipped with computer vision collect data points from the farms' exisiting crops. 
  • Through machine learning, farmers can monitor crops' nutrient levels, while also sheltering them from unpredictable and possibly damaging elements.
  • Despite the promise of AI in agriculture, the high cost of this technology isn't a realistic solution for many local, small-scale farmers. 
  • Watch the video above, part of the AI.Revolution series to learn more. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In Leones, Argentina, a drone with a special camera flies low over 150 acres of wheat. It's able to check each stalk, one-by-one, spotting the beginnings of a fungal infection that could potentially threaten this year's crop. 

The flying robot is powered by computer vision: a kind of artificial intelligence being developed by start-ups around the world, and deployed by farmers looking for solutions that will help them grow food on an increasingly unpredictable planet.

Many food producers are struggling to manage threats to their crop like disease and pests, made worse by climate change, monocropping, and widespread pesticide use. 

Catching things early is key.

Taranis, a company that works with farms on four continents, flies high-definition cameras above fields to provides "the eyes."  

Machine learning — a kind of artificial intelligence that's trained on huge data sets and then learns on its own — is the "brains."

"I think that today, to increase yields in our lots, it's essential to have a technology that allows us to take decisions immediately," said Ernesto Agüero, the producer on San Francisco Farm in Argentina. 

The algorithm teaches itself to flag something as small as an individual insect, long before humans would usually identify the problem.

AI's ability to identify sea lice could save fisheries hundreds of millions of dollars

Similar technology is at work in Norway's fisheries, where stereoscopic cameras are a new weapon in the battle against sea lice, a pest that plagues farmers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Norwegian government is considering making this technology, developed by a start-up called Aquabyte, a standard tool for farms across the country. 

Farmers annotated images to create the initial data set. Over time, the algorithm has continued to sharpen its skills with the goal of finding every individual louse.

But deploying computer vision is expensive, and for many it's still out of reach.

Despite computer vision's promise, many farmers can't afford this technology to save their products

Bigger industrial farms tried using computer vision to identify and remove sick pigs at the outset of an African swine fever epidemic that is sweeping China, according The New York Times.

But half of China's farms are small-scale operations like this one, where that wasn't an option. 

Chinese pig farmer Fan Chengyou lost everything.

"When the fever came, 398 pigs were buried alive," Chengyou said. "I really don't want to raise pigs anymore."

China — the world's biggest pork producing country — is expected to lose half its herd this year.

For many farmers in the world's major growing regions, 2019 was devastating.

Record flooding all along the Mississippi River Valley — the breadbasket of the United States — meant that many farmers couldn't plant anything at all this season.

And while computer vision can't stop extreme weather, it is at the heart of a growing trend that may eventually offer an alternative, sheltered from the elements.

Machine learning in artificial intelligence

Indoor farming could be key in fighting climate change

"Indoor growing powered by artificial intelligence is the future," said Josh Lessing, co-founder and CEO of Root AI, a research company that develops robots to assist in-door farmers. 

Computer vision has taught a fruit-picking robot named Virgo to figure out which tomatoes are ripe, and how to pick them gently, so that a hot house can harvest just the tomatoes that are ready, and let the rest keep growing. 

The Boston-based start-up is installing them at a handful commercial greenhouses in Canada starting in 2020.

80 Acres Farms, another pioneer in indoor growing, opened what it says is the world's first fully-automated indoor growing facility just last year.

The company, based in Cincinnati, currently has seven facilities in the United States, and plans to expand internationally over the next six months. Artificial intelligence monitors every step of the growing process.

"We can tell when a leaf is developing and if there are any nutrient deficiencies, necrosis, whatever might be happening to the leaf," said 80 Acres Farms, CEO, Mike Zelkind. "We can identify pest issues, we can identify a whole variety of things with vision systems today that we can also process."

Because the lettuce and vine crops are grown under colored LED lights, technicians can even manage photosynthesis 

Thanks to the benefits of indoor-farming practices, Zelkind says 80 Acres Farms' crops grow faster and have the potential to be more nutrient-dense.

Humans need more than salad to survive, though. Experts say indoor farms will need to expand to a more diverse range to provide a comprehensive option for growing food, but the advances being made in this space are significant. 

AI-powered indoor agriculture is attracting a whole new breed of farmer.

Techies' interest in indoor farming is growing, even if they have limited experience in the field

New techie farmers are ambitious, but they are also realistic about what it takes to make AI work.

Ryan Pierce comes from a cloud computing background, but decided to jump into indoor growing, despite little to no experience in agriculture. Now, Pierce works for Fresh Impact Farms, an indoor farm in Arlington, VA.

"It's really sexy to talk about AI and machine learning, but a lot of people don't realize is the sheer amount of data points that you actually need for it to be worthwhile," Pierce said.

There is a ways to go before artificial intelligence can truly solve the issues facing agriculture today and in the future. 

Many AI projects are still in beta, and some have proven too good to be true. 

Still, the appetite is high for finding solutions at the intersection of data, dirt and the robots that are learning to help us grow food.

AI for agriculture is valued at $600 million, and expected to reach $2.6 billion by 2025. 

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