Innovation

Farming for the future: How one company uses big data to maximize yields and minimize impact

Foris.io has a mission: Make farms more productive and protect the environment while doing it. With a combination of hardware and machine learning from IBM, Foris.io aims to change the way we farm.

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Image: iStock/NolanBerg11

Agriculture makes up a huge part of land use in the United States—somewhere around 50%, actually. That's a lot of land eating up a lot of resources, and if not stewarded properly a lot of waste following behind the use of those resources.

Foris.io was created to counter this environmentally devastating possibility. Victoria Vegis, founder and president of Foris.io, was driven to action by the California drought. With too many resources being used, and not enough replenishing them, something had to be done.

Vegis honed in on a particular part of agriculture: Soil conservation. "We're dealing with soil issues worldwide that will - if not solved - drastically decrease our society's ability to feed its population," she said. Foris.io's goal was clear: Develop a way to collect data on soil to get the most benefit out of watering and fertilizing with minimal use.

The IBM connection

Foris.io developed a soil sensor based around the popular Arduino platform, but it wasn't enough to get truly valuable data. That's where IBM Watson came in. Foris.io combines its Arduino-based hardware sensors with Watson machine learning, cognitive computing, and data analytics to form a completely proprietary system.

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The systems Vegis and her team have built are hosted on Bluemix, IBM's data storage, processing, and analytics cloud. "IBM's tools have enabled us to save both time and money on programming and development," Vegis said. With the initial hurdle of developing machine learning systems and processing data already accomplished, Foris.io has been able to actually gather data instead of just planning for it.

According to Vegis, cognitive computing platforms like Watson allow them to "take concept to prototype in a shorter period of time, which we know will improve our chances of securing funding." That doesn't just apply to her and Foris.io—it's a huge benefit for all tech innovators.

How Foris.io wants to change agriculture

With a probe installed, data gathering begins. The devices, capable of transmitting data several kilometers, measure moisture, pH level, salinity, temperature, and other factors, all of which are fed to Foris.io for analysis.

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The data gained from soil sensors is combined with a variety of other environmental factors, such as weather, geographic location, crop yield statistics, and additional relevant data. Foris.io's motto, "just enough • just in time," reflects its goal for the data it gathers and analyzes: To provide farmers with real-time feedback that tells them how much to water and fertilize and precisely when to do it.

The global agricultural industry uses an estimated 70% of freshwater. Watering and fertilizing only as often and as much as needed eliminates excess water consumption, minimizes fertilizer runoff, prevents soil erosion, and curbs energy use.

In short, it's a win not only for farmers—it's a win for everyone.

"Agriculture is the last industry to embrace technology," Vegis said, "[yet] it is the industry that is most vital for our existence." With half the United States being dedicated to growing crops getting every farmer on board is going to be a battle for Vegis and Foris.io, but it's an important one: The future of our environment could depend on it.


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About Brandon Vigliarolo

Brandon writes about apps and software for TechRepublic. He's an award-winning feature writer who previously worked as an IT professional and served as an MP in the US Army.

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