If you’re around my age, when you think of IBM, an image of big mainframe computers with giant rotating tape loops come to mind (I’m old). But for you young’uns, you’d be forgiven if the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about IBM is food.
Today, Big Blue announced a two-year research collaboration with the Thailand government’s National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) that will use IBM’s Internet of Things (Iot), artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics capabilities to help improve sugarcane yields in Thailand. (Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of sugar.) The pilot will run on three sugar cane farms covering 1 million square meters run by Mitr Phol, Asia’s largest sugar producer.
IBM’s Agronomic Insights Assistant will bring together elements of IBM Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, the IBM Pairs Geoscope and The Weather Company, which IBM purchased in 2015. The program will gather data from the fields (soil moisture, crop health, etc.) using a combination of IoT sensors and satellite imagery, which will be augmented with local data from the NSTDA and years of weather data from The Weather Company to better predict potential environmental issues like rainfall.
The IBM platform will then take all this data and run it through Watson to create a software and mobile dashboard to help Mitr Phol better assess and manage risks like pests, diseases, irrigation and pesticide/fertilizer application, with the goal of optimizing productivity and increasing crop yield.
The Agronomic Insights Assistant will start its pilot in the middle of this year, and because IBM is working with NSTDA, a government agency, the insights gained may be shared with other farmers in the region so they can apply the same tactics.
As noted earlier, IBM is a name that keeps popping up in the food tech space for us here at The Spoon. In September of last year the company created the Agropad, a cheap, paper sensor that could be used to measure acidity and chemical levels in soil. And earlier this year, Big Blue partnered with McCormick to apply its AI tech to developing new spices.
Right now, the Agronomic Insights Assistant is in the research phase, so things like pricing and availability weren’t discussed. IBM is facing a lot of competition in the data-driven-insights-for-agtech space. Arable and Teralytic both make field sensors to provide data on soil conditions, Taranis uses aerial imaging including from satellites to help farmers spot diseases early, and Hi Fidelity Genetics uses sensors, data and AI for improved crop breeding.
The advantage IBM has, of course, is that it’s IBM. It has existing sales channels, Watson is perhaps the premiere AI brand, and it can combine sensors, data, weather prediction and AI under one roof. And, of course, a younger generation of farmers unfamiliar with IBM’s roots may not have the preconceived notion of IBM’s mainframe roots.