When AI Steers Tractors
10th October 2018 — Forbes
How Farmers Are Using Drones and Data To Cut Costs
For thousands of years, farming involved making judgments about water, fertilizers or new seeds with the human eye. Today farmers are using machine-learning tools to boost their yields and help their bottom line.
Hummingbird Technologies, which has a staff of 40 and is on course to book $1.5 million in revenue for 2018, hires drone pilots to make detailed aerial photos of fields.
Its software uses computer vision, a form of machine learning, to identify acres of weeds or chlorophyll concentrations more quickly than a single human could.
“We’re picking up readings that tell us about biomass,
The service costs Hummingbird’s customers, who manage farms in the United Kingdom, Australia, Ukraine, Russia and Brazil, roughly £5-20 per hectare per a year, depending on the data they want to collect and utilize.
Hummingbird thinks it can get that price down if farmers start using their own drones. A decent drone that can spend an hour flying autonomously across a typical 500 hectares (about one-and-a-half times the size of New York’s Central Park) might cost a farmer about $20,000, says Ed Plowman, chief scientific officer of Hummingbird. But the investment might be worth it.
With a 100-megapixel camera, farmers can photograph a field to half a
His business model is another example of the gradual step change from Big Data to artificial intelligence. Hummingbird doesn’t just collect a database of numbers but also translates them into decisions about how to irrigate or spray chemicals on a field of corn, potatoes or rapeseed.
Its platform sends those instructions to a farmer in the form of a “shapefile,” a file format with geolocation and topographical data that can be plugged directly into farm equipment with a USB flash drive.
Farm tractors have been using GPS positioning for years, and the advancement has already allowed farmers to save tens of thousands of dollars annually on fuel, Wells says, adding that his software represents the next step in farming efficiency.
Wells, who grew up surrounded by farms in Dorset, England, got the idea for Hummingbird during his hospital visits to get treatment for cancer. He believes that image-recognition technology—similar to the kind Facebook uses to scan photos for tagging or that Apple uses to unlock the iPhone X—could support disease diagnosis in plants. Doctors are already using
Plowman, the chief science officer, joined the company from British chip designer ARM, where he was head of machine learning. Hummingbird’s machine-learning technology is similar to
In the case of crops, Hummingbird is building a profile of a field, taking into account variables like the weather, soil and date, and creating a personalized instruction set.
The instructions, which look like a
Cutting costs here can make a big difference to a farmer’s bottom line. An average, 500-hectare field of canola, for instance, would need to be sprayed up to ten times over roughly seven months, says Wells, costing around $400 per hectare, or $200,000 for the season.
Adjusting those nozzles to spray only what each 20-meter section needs — according to the height of the crops or existing nitrogen content—can mean a cost saving to farmers of around 10% or more, he says.
“We’re moving towards a world of perfect information,” Wells adds. “Crops are a factory with no roof on. At some point in the not-too-distant future, whether it’s government or food companies or farmers, anyone involved in farming that needs to eat will have perfect information as to what’s going on.”