Farmwave: Five Years and 4 Months Into the Future of Agriculture
Farmwave began for me as a bit of an accident. I was an early adopter of Google Glass and had begun exploring the world of agriculture with my friend Bruce Rasa. For several months, Bruce and I were known as the “two dudes with Glass” who traveled to various conferences showing off this futuristic heads-up-display to farmers, researchers, and executives alike.
Me using Google Glass with an early build of intelliSCOUT in the field
While Bruce and I remain friends today, we pursued different paths because we simply had different visions- both which I think will add value to the agriculture industry. I stuck with vision-based computing; in March 2013, I wrote the first lines of code on what was then called intelliSCOUT.
For several years, intelliSCOUT received a lot of attention. Just about every major seed company, machinery company, large-scale grower and small-holder farmer from around the world wanted to know more about this “image recognition app” for diagnosis and recommendations-and which could almost magically count corn kernels in seconds. We didn’t really intend for this to happen. I knew the image based recognition was possible, but that we were years away from really making it a reality.
Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning may be buzzwords today, but they are not new concepts. You might be reading more about it in the mainstream news and media today, but this level of scientific research of training computers has been around since the 1980s.
Listening and Learning
Firmly in “heads down” mode, we moved forward on the technology based on some of the limited knowledge we had about the problems we were trying to solve for farmers. Then we stopped. Instinctively, I knew that before going too far, we needed to learn from farmers how viable this would be and how much it would really get used. Would this really solve a problem for them? I wanted the opportunity to look farmers in the eye as they answered this question: “Would this add enough value that you would spend not just money, but the time and effort to learn a new technology?”
The answer was always a yes. The value and data that could come from this technology would lead to tangible results such as decreased crop destruction, higher yields, and less inputs. But we were not met without skepticism. Agriculture and plant pathology is full of biases…- and rightly so. We are talking about enhancing the knowledge gained from centuries of learning this trade by the very manner in which computers do NOT traditionally learn: experience.
Recently, I had a phone conversation with Dr. Suzanne Wainright-Evans, who is known as the “bug-lady.” While she saw the benefits of our technology, she was very skeptical about how we would be able to harness all the little details and biases in what she does into “an app.” She couldn’t be more right. But here’s the truth of it all. As much as this world absolutely needs more Dr. Wainwright-Evans and others just like her), there are fewer and fewer or her, because as she stated, “it’s not popular to play with bugs today”. People are not necessarily lining up to be the next world-renowned entomologist like Dr. Wainwright-Evans and she’s not going to live forever. FARMWAVE is a way to channel that hard-fought experience and extend it for the benefit of future generations.
A few years ago, intelliSCOUT was invited to present in front of some big name companies and was asked questions very early on about whether we were willing to sell, take investment, etc. We went down a few of these roads, but soon realized the disconnect between the stakeholders we were meeting with and the people within their organization or their customers who would actually be using intelliSCOUT. This realization told me we had a lot more to learn. Kris Tom from Tom Farms said something to me once I’ve never forgotten. “Please don’t add more technology on top of existing technology, for the sake of adding technology to what we do.”
Building the Future
Today, intelliSCOUT is now known as Farmwave, and we’re launching the first version of our beta to the world. Why launch as a beta? Because we value the feedback from the users who will engage with our product. It’s been said that “If you ever think you’re going to knock it out of the park in your first release of an application, you’re fooling yourself.” While we expect to be out of beta within a few months, we wanted a solid timeframe to gain feedback from the people who will use Farmwave every day.
We had a saying in the Marine Corps among us operators in communications intelligence:, “the key to success in battle is effective communication”. We changed the name from intelliSCOUT to Farmwave because our platform is more than just intelligent scouting. Farmwave is about connecting. It’s about a platform that creates a global community for farmers; large and small stakeholders alike. But we have more to learn from these farms from around the world and how they will all use Farmwave differently. Farmwave’s community component will allow the various types of growers to connect with each other, right where they are: in the field, in the lab, in the cab, in the air, or in the palm of their hand.
In partnership with outstanding universities such as the University of Georgia and their Agriculture Extension, we’re expanding our database of knowledge and imagery. With other universities soon to be announced following UGA’s lead, our curated and properly validated library of data is unique, and as far as we know and have been told, one of a kind in the world today.
Data privacy has been an ongoing concern in the agriculture industry for years now. Farmwave is- and always will be- open and transparent about our data privacy policies and terms and conditions. Data is valuable to both large organizations and farmers. Farmwave simplifies this. Your data is your data. Period. But if you opt into an organization or private label version of Farmwave built by a larger organization, anything you submit on that side of the fence, you’re allowing access to by others, so they are sharing in the knowledge and experience that you gain- and vice-versa. How you connect with growers and researchers on a global scale is set by you, the user. It’s about having the choice with your data and having control over when and where you choose to share it.
Working collaboratively has never been more important than now as we think about the future of growing food together. For this reason, Farmwave is working on an app store which will allow other SaaS platforms to connect and integrate with Farmwave, utilizing our artificial intelligence for the sake of bringing together data and streamlining the flow of information. We’re already working with UAV, satellite, and machinery companies for integrations in early 2019.
In addition to our ability to identify and diagnose pathogen, pest, and weed infestations, we are working to include treatment recommendations after a diagnosis is made. We’re working with a few organizations who also work closely with the EPA to automate what is now a manual database into the decision flow of Farmwave’s algorithms. This automated process will give recommendations based not only on what it sees but where you are in accordance with state or region compliance and then file it for you with the state- all in near real-time.
After a few seasons, Farmwave will begin to generate predictive modeling efforts based off the data you’ve generated. The more you use it, the smarter it gets for you.
Bringing It All Together
Succession is important to all family farms, and it should be important to everyone who cares about food. Farmwave’s beta launch is the beginning of learning from our early adopters. The knowledge of people like Dr. Suzanne Wainright-Evans needs to be preserved today, to make the best decisions possible, tomorrow. I’m not going to lie to you, we have a long way to go. The team at Farmwave has experienced high demand from around the world on what crops and their corresponding pathogens and pests we’ve already trained machine learning models for. What I can tell you, is we’re working on it. This kind of problem-solving, development and artificial intelligence does not happen overnight. It’s not a sprinkle of pixie dust and magic. Artificial intelligence is not as artificial as we all think. Just as genetically modified food is not all as artificial as some might think. This problem of global food production, this crisis we fear, is not artificial.
It is all very real. Data and knowledge are real. Time is real. Farmwave was developed to save the most precious commodity we have: time. But initially, it will take time if we’re going to do it right and keep it accurate.
We look forward to the future road-map of Farmwave, working with growers, researchers, large stakeholders, empowering smallholders, integrating with others, and working together to solve the problems we face. Farmwave can be accessed today at farmwave.app. You will see many improvements and feature additions already over the next few months. We look forward to seeing you all in the field and we look forward to connecting on Farmwave.