IBM unveiled its new AgroPad yesterday, which uses a combination of paper, artificial intelligence and cloud computing to help farmers easily test for acidity levels and concentrations of various chemicals in their soil and water.

What’s interesting about IBM’s approach is the combination of low + high tech. Here’s a description about how AgroPad works from the IBM announcement blog post:

A drop of water or soil sample is placed on the AgroPad, which is a paper device about the size of a business card. The microfluidics chip inside the card performs on-the-spot a chemical analysis of the sample, providing results in less than 10 seconds.

The set of circles on the back of the card provide colorimetric test results; the color of each circle represents the amount of a particular chemical in the sample. Using a smartphone, the farmer would then take a single snapshot of the AgroPad by using a dedicated mobile application and immediately receives a chemical test result.

AgroPad can measure pH, nitrogen dioxide, aluminum, magnesium and chlorine levels in samples. With this data, farmers can better understand their farmland and make adjustments to where and how they fertilize.

For the artificial intelligence nerds out there, what’s interesting is that the AI is actually running on the mobile phone. After the picture of the AgroPad is taken, the analysis happens on the device itself — not back up in the cloud. The computer vision in the software can precisely analyze the color composition and intensity better than the human eye to deliver instant results.

For the cloud computing nerds out there, each AgroPad test paper has a unique QR code. When a farmer takes a photo of the test paper, AgroPad attaches the phone’s GPS data, as well as the timestamp when the photo was taken, to the specific sample. When multiple tests with all this meta-data are uploaded into the cloud IBM stitches together all the findings to create a data-rich map of an entire farm.

As the global population increases, optimizing and maximizing farm output will be even more important. As such, there are a lot of companies working on technology to make farms more efficient and productive. Big Blue already faces a lot of competition just in the soil analysis space from a number of startups already going to market. Teralytic makes in-ground sensors that monitor pH, nitrogen and potassium. Arable‘s own sensors measure moisture, solar radiation and plant health. And CropX‘s screw-in sensors measure soil moisture and salinity.

I asked Mathias Steiner, Manager, Industrial Technology & Science, IBM Research in Brazil, how a manual process like AgroPad’s (physically going and taking samples) will be able to compete with theses sensor companies. He told me that AgroPad’s chemical indicators are not available as an electronic sensor. Presumably, AgroPad could find a market because unlike sensors, the tiny pieces of paper can’t be stolen and won’t break down. Additionally, it’s a safe bet that IBM could more easily customize AgroPad for different farms by offering different chemical analysis.

Right now, AgroPad is still in the prototype phase. Steiner said the company is looking to team up with an industrial-sized partner for expanded tests.

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