Using sensors and satellites to take the guesswork out of farming
Azure FarmBeats, originally a Microsoft Garage research project, was announced in Public Preview at last year’s Ignite conference.
Azure FarmBeats, originally a Microsoft Garage research project, was announced in Public Preview at last year’s Ignite conference. Now, in this public phase of commercialisation, Jourdan Templeton, Chief Technology Officer at Aware Group and Microsoft Regional Director, tells us about the moving parts that have gone into the FarmBeats project, off the back of its feature in the AgTech Hackathon Lite 2020.
Jourdan – what went into the creation of FarmBeats?
FarmBeats was founded by Microsoft researcher Ranveer Chandra, who from his grandparents’ farm in India, had seen first-hand the need for more efficient and sustainable farming. FarmBeats is based on the questions he started to ask, about how we can increase the amount of food we produce while also decreasing the impact on the environment and the amount of land and water it takes to do that. It’s an ambitious goal to start with but that’s the exact problem FarmBeats is solving.
Jourdan Templeton, CTO of Aware Group and a lead implementor for FarmBeats in New Zealand
“A lot of farming is about guesswork… about when to water, when to apply pesticides, when to apply nutrients, fertilisers… If a farmer uses their knowledge coupled with data and data-driven insights, we can make agriculture more productive, more cost efficient and also better for the environment.” – Ranveer Chandra, Chief Scientist of Azure Global and the Founder and Principal Researcher behind FarmBeats, speaking at Ignite 2019
What role did Aware Group play?
We’ve been involved with the FarmBeats for years as a partner helping to demonstrate FarmBeats – including deploying it at a number of sites globally. One of these sites happens to be the first FarmBeats enabled farm in New Zealand. We’ve also built our own IP around the product. We use dashboards and artificial intelligence/machine learning to collect data and put a lens on it to make it useful for farmers.
What are FarmBeat’s most innovative technology focus areas?
FarmBeats is being used around the world right now for things like monitoring crop nutrient levels and even timing the best day for irrigating and spraying. The idea is that we’re extracting information about the farm environment and its conditions using satellite trackers and on-farm sensors. FarmBeats combines that data together to produce targeted insights and scenarios for the farmer. This adds the context to make the most effective decisions, such as precision irrigation to reduce runoff.
What are the big opportunities of agritech for our primary industry to move forward with actionable business sustainability?
Optimising water and land use are the big ones.
In New Zealand often farmers get blamed for damage to waterways. There may have been some truth to this historically, however I believe many efforts have been taken to reduce impacts today. Researchers predict that by 2050 the human population is expected to double – with that we need to also increase the amount of food we’re producing. There are issues associated with doing so – one being that producing food uses a lot of land and water.
FarmBeats and wider agritech evolutions are focusing on the possibilities of how cloud-based tech might improve this. There are a huge amount of opportunities and they’re aligned to both reducing costs and being more efficient with our farming practices, also with conservation and generally biodiversity in all its aspects.
Having FarmBeats data and other connected farm data is so essential because for regulatory purposes makes it so much easier to measure water use, noise, light and other types of possible pollution. There’s too much time – not to mention money – spent enforcing or just checking that sustainable regulations have been met. That is one of the big opportunities of technology – to bring visibility and accountability to all industries.
We saw you recently included FarmBeats in your Connected Farming challenge in this year’s AgTech Hackathon. What was the importance of doing so?
Agriculture is a central industry in New Zealand. We know that we can use technology to increase sustainability, to reduce waste and other potentially harmful side effects of farming.
For us, the AgTech Hackathon is a great way to give back to the industry but also to help educate people in these technologies. Through Microsoft’s sponsorship of the Hackathon, Aware Group defined the ‘Connected Farm’ challenge, asking, how might we use data to make farming easier? Participants were then supplied with real data collected on a New Zealand farm, directly from the FarmBeats solution.
There were interesting submissions in our category this year and a couple of standout ones, including a team based in the Waikato who’d developed a new type of soil sensor which could produce detailed information about the moisture and composition of the soil and other metrics that aren’t easy to record currently.
Another was looking at reducing nitrogen leaching. Currently, it’s easy to over-water nitrogen-rich patches where cow urine is concentrated. This increases the chances of that nitrogen leaching into nearby waterways. With FarmBeats and the innovations of this group, we’re able to help farmers easily detect and avoid watering nitrogen-rich patches as water is applied to the pasture.
On Thursday 21st May we’ll be chatting with Jourdan Templeton, along with Malcom Fraser, Director of Industry 4.0 Accelerator (i4), about their roles in the FarmBeats Technology Trials, as well as the future of agritech solutions for New Zealand primary industry. Stay tuned.
Read Bill Gates’ article and watch his video on FarmBeats here: Can the Wi-Fi chip on your phone help feed the world?
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