Why is AI so useful to agriculture and food production?

An interview with Dr Panos Sidiropoulos, Head of AI and Innovation, Hummingbird Technologies.

Artificial intelligence is not here to replace farmers or to compete with agronomists. It is here to assist the farming community by generating valuable information that was previously impractical to access.

For example, if a farmer had the resources and the time to walk through all of their fields they would be able to spot each and every weed that needs to be sprayed, then create an application plan to spray only these and then save money by targeting the weeds. But this is completely impractical in all but very small-area holdings. The farmers do not have access to this information not because they need some new form of intelligence (artificial intelligence) to complete the task, but because it is tedious and time-consuming. Artificial intelligence algorithms are capable of unlocking this information, and allow the farming community to make more informed decisions, reducing the costs as well as the related environmental impact.

In general, we can view AI technologies as the next generation of computing. Computers’ main advantage was always their ability to do tedious and repetitive tasks really fast. For example, multiplying numbers is something that most humans can do correctly, computers just offer speed in such a task. AI is going on step further, to more complicated tasks, that require some sort of intelligence, such as detecting all the weeds, finding and measuring all the plants in a field, estimating the volume of residual crops, etc. AI is an assistant to the farming community, doing all the tedious and repetitive tasks, and giving valuable insights that would not be accessible otherwise. The practical benefits of such information are obvious:

  • Reducing the costs by up to 50%
  • Increasing the yield by up to 30%
  • Smoothing out the logistics
  • Reducing the environmental impact

All of the above can be reaped here and now

In what way is Hummingbird Technologies a pioneer in the use of AI?

Remote sensing and AI don’t mix easily. They were originally two completely different communities, the former relevant to physics (sensors) and Earth sciences (mapping, geodesy etc) and the latter to computer science and mathematics. There is still a gap between the two fields that undermines companies operating in their intersection.

Hummingbird Technologies is one of the few companies that has bridged this gap, developing tools based on the latest developments in AI, while using bespoke sensors and being geospatially informed. It is not that we have merely transferred deep learning on agriculture remote sensing, but mainly that we have modified such technologies based on the agriculture setup and even developed from scratch in-house algorithms that combine AI and remote sensing ideas.

Is it understandable that some farmers are resistant to embracing AI?

It is partially understandable because sensationalism has shifted the focus away from the impactful AI applications that have already started improving our lives. More people have heard AI as a technology which will bring to life Terminator or Matrix than as a technology which, for example, increases amputee mobility through new-generation prosthetics, or, in the case of Hummingbird Technologies, a technology that helps the farming community to increase yields and reduce costs.

My message to them is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. AI is a science and rejecting it is as wise as rejecting physics, medicine, chemistry, or any other science. It is healthy to be skeptical in the claims and demanding in the results, but flat rejection means missing all the benefits that AI offers to agriculture. My suggestion is to find a company that can walk them through the offering in terms that are relevant to them, helps them realise the value of the information and how this is to be used, and continues engaging with them throughout the season.

What do you and the Hummingbird AI team want to achieve in the next 12 months?

There are two main areas of focus currently. Firstly, Hummingbird Technologies is world leading in the monitoring of sustainable practices using AI. Sustainability has become a buzzword that due to its overuse is in danger of losing practical meaning. In Hummingbird Technologies we are not just saying that we “promote sustainability”, we are actually measuring sustainability. We are developing AI technologies that can model and precisely measure the effect of management practices in the environment, thus helping the farming community to move towards more sustainable practices. Over the next 12 months, we plan to have released a sustainability product portfolio that will be available to the farming community.

Secondly, we would like to increase the speed in adapting a tool to new crops and geographical areas. This is an inherent challenge in agriculture. Tools that are developed for a certain crop or a certain geographic area are hard to be transferred to another one without needing to repeat the work from scratch. We have made significant progress over the last years and we are currently in a mature stage to start delivering systematic AI pipelines, which could be transferred with minimum modifications to other crops and countries. This will allow our AI stack to reach a much larger clientbase.

Have there been any exciting developments in AI in the last 12 months?

Yes, the AI revolution that started in 2012 has not lost momentum. On the contrary, more and more technologies are developed resolving some of the main pain points of the technology.

An exciting new area of AI is self-supervised learning, in which machine learning algorithms are trained without requiring any labelled data. Data labelling, one of the bottlenecks of AI algorithms, is building the example material that the algorithm is using to learn to generate intelligent output. Many times data labelling is painfully slow and requires extensive resources on the ground. Self-supervised learning has the potential to significantly reduce the need of labelled data, by using the input both for training and for inference. This would result in faster development, more personalised algorithms and, in some cases, higher accuracy. It is not a silver bullet but it can find several applications in agriculture. In Hummingbird, we have started exploring self-supervised learning and we are planning to have our first such tools in the near future.

What was your career path?

I spent the first 11 years of my career in research institutes, learning from some of the AI early pioneers. I did my PhD under the Distinguished Professor Josef Kittler (University of Surrey) on Machine Learning in Video Processing and then moved on to machine learning on Remote Sensing, an area that is my main interest since 2013. I have worked in space exploration (mainly focusing on machine learning on NASA and ESA Mars data), upstream AI technologies, environmental monitoring etc. and currently, agriculture. I joined Hummingbird Technologies in early 2019.

What fascinates you about AI?

AI has already started to have an impact in many aspects of our lives despite being as far as it ever was from utopian (or dystopian) technologies. To be able to closely witness the early development of a new science, and even add your tiny contribution to it, is a very exciting working life.

Partner of the ‘4 per 1000’ Initiative

Hummingbird Technologies has joined the 4 per 1000 Initiative, a global coalition of organisations united by their commitment to soil restoration.

Today soil degradation poses a threat to more than 40% of the world’s land surfaces and climate disruption is accelerating the process, posing a risk to our climate as well as global food security. 4 per 1000 was created at the COP21 Paris summit in December 2015. The name relates to the fact that increasing soil carbon by 0.4 percentage points per year across the world would translate into large scale carbon sequestration, offering one of the most cost-effective and scalable defences against climate change.

Hummingbird Technologies has developed algorithms to detect from satellite the key farming practices – such as no-till cultivation, cover crops and crop rotations – that are associated with soil restoration and agricultural sustainability. We believe that scalable monitoring and verification is essential in facilitating and incentivising widespread adoption of these practices, so we are excited to be part of this initiative and to be contributing to our shared goals.

For more information about our sustainability monitoring tools, get in touch with Matthew Guinness, our Head of Sustainability – matthewg@hummingbirdtech.com.

The Sustainable Agriculture Collaboration

Hummingbird Technologies, Linking Environment And Farming (LEAF) and the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) are delighted to announce the launch of the Sustainable Agriculture collaboration (SUS-Ag), a 9 month project funded via Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund .

The vision for the consortium is to revolutionise the way farmers report on and measure sustainability. The principal aims of the project are:

  • To design a tool that is based on a harmonised framework for metrics.
  • To automate data collection and create an output dashboard.
  • To use cutting edge AI to look at the causal relationships in sustainability.

The project is being led by Hummingbird Technologies, who will use their world leading remote sensing and AI capabilities to develop and build the web application and underlying models from the existing LEAF and SFT tools. Both LEAF and SFT have been pioneering these kinds of Monitoring, Verifying and Reporting (MVR) tools for many years and bring with them industry leading knowledge, experience and relationships to the project.

“We are delighted to be working with both LEAF and SFT on this project. We see the need for this kind of sustainability monitoring tool in every country we operate in and it couldn’t be more timely given the global pressures on agriculture and the focus on a greener and cleaner future”.  Will Wells, Founder & CEO, Hummingbird

‘This groundbreaking project will provide a unique opportunity to drive change and harmonisation, taking our work in sustainability monitoring and impact measurement to another level.  Technology has developed exponentially over the last 20 years and we are excited to be working with Hummingbird Technologies and the Sustainable Food Trust to maximise our complimentary skills and capabilities. This work is set to make a significant contribution in supporting farmers and the wider food chain, in delivering meaningful and informed change through enhanced sustainability metrics.’ – Caroline Drummond MBE LEAF Chief Executive

“As farms throughout the world now occupy the majority of habitable land area, farmers need to be empowered to play a key role in addressing issues such as climate change, soil degradation and biodiversity loss. The Sustainable Food Trust is delighted to be working with LEAF and Hummingbird Technologies to create a harmonised sustainability assessment tool which will allow farmers to collect information in a clear and consistent way. We believe this tool could have multiple exciting uses, as part of future government support schemes as well as improving supply chain transparency and look forward to working with the team to build on this opportunity” – Patrick Holden, Sustainable Food Trust Chief Executive

The project is due to run from October 1st 2020 until July 2021.

For any questions relating to the Sustainable agriculture collaboration (SUS-ag) please email alexander@hummingbirdtech.com

October 2020

Jack Williams-Ellis – our new Head of Mexico and California at Hummingbird Technologies!

Jack visited growers and shippers in Querétaro, Mexico to demonstrate our counting and sizing tool in Lettuce and Broccoli. “It’s great to see conventional farming working side by side with ecosystem restoration projects”. Please reach out to Jack today to find out how these remote sensing analytics can help inform your harvest and business forecasts.

Get in Touch with Jack

Soy Producers in Brazil

Book your November flight with Hummingbird Technologies now, to generate pre-emergence weed mapping.

What will the map show?

Before planting the soybean crop, this map identifies areas with weeds.

What are the benefits of mapping?

  • Facilitates localized spraying or variable spraying plans.
  • Reduces costs with chemicals.
  • Better for the environment.
  • Allows weeds to be removed: the competition caused by weeds in the soybean crop can result in significant losses and reduce production by more than 90%. It can also make harvesting difficult and affect the quality of the grain or seed.

Contact the Brazil team to Book

Sugarcane

Meet our Head of Brazil, Marcello Ramos, who has been busy helping sugarcane farmers get the most from their harvest using our technology.

Conheça nosso Chefe do Brasil, Marcello Ramos tem estado ocupado ajudando os produtores de cana de açúcar a obter o máximo de sua colheita utilizando nossa tecnologia.

Find out more

UK – Cover Crops and farm vision

As you’ll know, during wet winters the cover crop root system can work beautifully to hold the soil in place, preventing heavy rains washing away precious fertile topsoil.

Planting cover crops is a decision made for a multitude of further reasons too:

  • Building soil fertility and increasing soil organic matter.
  • Capturing and releasing residual nitrogen to the following crop.
  • Improving soil structure.
  • Increasing worm numbers.
  • Reducing Nitrogen Leaching.
  • Increasing biodiversity, through the attraction of plant and insect species.

But how will you evaluate the success of your cover crops?
Hummingbird Technologies will give you the accuracy of benchmarking you’ve been missing.

Contact us to learn more

Farm Vision

Subscribe to Farm Vision from Hummingbird Technologies and access our satellite imagery to monitor and benchmark the whole farm’s cropping performance this season.

Your annual subscription gives you:

  • Rolling satellite imagery: 2-3 images per week.
  • Cloud detection masking.
  • Analytics dashboard: displays field benchmarking and comparison surveys.

Interested?

Get in Touch


Russia/Ukraine – pre winter crop assessment

Our Russia and Ukraine Hummingbird teams are busy taking bookings for October for Pre-Winter Crop Assessments.

During October, we will provide high resolution UAV imagery to accurately and remotely assess fields and farms prior to the onset of frost and snow this winter. The service is ideal for winter cereals, to benchmark their performance before the winter months.

The advanced insights on the crop health of the land will help clients manage and plan ahead effectively. When the snow disappears, we then offer a Post-winter Assessment using advanced machine learning, to make accurate comparisons on crop health, biomass and disease risk.

Email the Sales team to make a booking

Canada Crop Type Classification Tool

Crop Type Classification is a key Hummingbird Technologies service for our clients globally. What does our in-house crop identification algorithm achieve? It identifies the crop type and maps biodiversity, helping to monitor agricultural activity near-real-time during the season at a lower operational cost. 

Our Data Scientists outline how we can inform supply chains about food production months before harvest here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the increasing demand for regular monitoring of agricultural production as a vital instrument to ensure food security and to avoid potential shortages in the food supply chain.

At Hummingbird, we have developed a remote sensing tool with a consistent performance globally and without dependency on the weather conditions. To learn more and to find out how these capabilities can help you and your business, please contact the sales team today! 

Email the Sales Team

Trials as a Service – Canola Variety Trial

Trial assessments can be easily scaled, with our ‘Pro package’ providing a statistical report that supports seed breeders in high-throughput phenotyping of their variety trials.

The Telus platform

We recently partnered with Farm At Hand to make our imagery technology available in Canada! To learn more, visit www.farmathand.com/hummingbird or contact hummingbirdcanada@farmathand.com

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