It is Agriculture’s Turn to Put the Next Generation of Digital Technologies to Work

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

There are a lot of buzzwords finding their way into agriculture these days — aerial imagery, data analytics, UAVs, algorithms, deep learning, and many others — all common in the tech sector and now becoming mainstream in agriculture. It is overwhelming to keep track of them, much less to understand how they will deliver benefits to farmers or what they have to do with increasing overall food production.

My opinion? I’m excited about all of them! I’ve had the opportunity to spend the last 25+ years working with many industries, including aerospace, healthcare, oil production, first responders and elderly care, to find ways that mathematics, physics and computer science can offer solutions to various robotics and engineering problems. I couldn’t be more excited about what the future holds for agriculture and how I can play a role in it.

There are several trends and developments coming together to bring us to the edge of a new revolution in agriculture:  all driven by digitization. So many advancements we’ve seen in medicine, surveillance, forestry, and other industries — now including agriculture — are possible because we can use digital images to reach levels of accuracy not possible before. And, the timing couldn’t be more critical. Population growth, urbanization, and many other factors are converging to create a looming food security challenge.

Thirty to forty years ago in medicine, we didn’t have the detailed MRI, colonoscopy, mammogram and other diagnostic imaging technologies that allow doctors to detect, or rule out, potential health problems. Computer vision has come a long way thanks to improved processing speeds and capabilities. Delivering accurate diagnostics from detailed images requires not only the technology to take the images, but a mountain of mathematical computations and algorithms that require an immense amount of computing power.

We often see the first breakthroughs in the medical field because, as a research community and a society, our first priority is improving and protecting human health. Once solutions are identified for medicine, they can quickly be extended to other industries in collaboration with appropriate experts.

In medicine, the sophisticated imaging equipment provides the details that doctors need to determine if additional invasive tests, such as biopsies, are needed for a conclusive diagnosis and to establish a treatment plan.

Now, with the implementation of of drone regulations and their widespread availability we can put these same scientific advances to work for agriculture, allowing farmers to know more about their fields than ever before. At IntelinAir, we are working to build an early warning system to alert farmers of problems while there is still time to address weed, disease, fertility or other issues. It is no surprise that we called our solution AgMRI™.

Just as a farmer relies on years of experience and a deep understanding of his field, soil and climate conditions to make decisions, we have to use many layers of data and information to make a diagnosis. Each new piece of information helps complete the puzzle and build a comprehensive health analysis for the farmer’s field.

It is exciting to see the technologies that have made a life-saving difference in medicine now being applied to producing more food from every acre with the best quality.

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.