The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 GPS Edition, which can monitor farms and measure water levels.
Image: Parrot

California’s farm economy is a $43.6 billion industry. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and it grows more than 400 different commodities. Its exports have also consistently increased in the last few years, reaching $18 billion in 2012.

The state is also experiencing a devastating drought. Nearly one-third of its water is sourced from snowpack, which is hovering at about 20% of its normal levels. Water reservoirs are running low, and rural communities have been warned that they may completely run out of the precious resource.

It’s not good news for the state, where farmers are being forced to thin herds, lose crops, and raise prices. California is the leading producer of US-grown avocados and the world leader in almond production, which makes for hard decisions when those crop values and demand continue to jump year after year.

Intel is driving the movement to use big data to solve large-scale food security problems, starting with those in California. Through its short term projects, the company is increasing research initiatives and data access, but long-term, Intel wants to create an accessible, reliable reference platform for scientists around the world.

“We’re using big data analytic solutions [that are] applied to significant problems,” said Vin Sharma, director of strategy and business development for the cloud analytics division at Intel. “Without overstating it, it’s trying to solve problems of world-changing scope.”

Big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are going to play a huge role in addressing the challenges the world will face in the coming years. It’s why the US government opened its climate change data to the public and is promoting community projects to use technology in creating solutions. Knowledge about the issues our world will face with the rapidly growing demand for food, farmland, and water.

SEE: How big data is going to help feed nine billion people by 2050

Intel’s role in California’s future

“Intel’s approach is to ask that ‘Why now?’ question to solve grand challenges of science and business today,” Sharma said. “We’ve been involved — broadly speaking — in democratizing technologies, taking something relatively advanced and accessible to only a few and making [it] more broadly available.”

Intel Science and Technology Centers (ISTC) in the US and international Intel Collaborative Research Institutes (ICRI) are all at least partially funded by the company, and serve as research collaborations between Intel and the surrounding academic community. The universities pick their own agendas to tackle, and Intel helps with the resources and big-picture concepts.

To address the snowpack melting in California, Intel is working with the Earth Research Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara. Researchers are measuring snow patterns in the Sierra Nevada mountains using satellite imagery and mapping technologies. The end goal is to understand how much water California will have available in the future, but the method can be used in any geographic location.

Intel collects more than 20 terabytes of data a month from this project, and it plans to continue expanding that. The data is sent to the UCSB institute, where it is widely available to scientists in the community. The project is still in its research phase, but Intel said it wants to create a database of images for governments, academics, and scientists to utilize.

Before this project, scientists would have to venture out to the snowpack areas and manually measure the water levels. Intel wants more participants and scientists to access the data reservoir so there can be more applications and models for the entire industry to access. Right now, the priority is to encourage the development of the technology itself, Sharma said. Then Intel will work on scaling the projects. Sharma said he would love for this to become a type of citizen science project, involving communities, in the future.

There are challenges in any of these big data projects, Sharma added. It’s a huge leap of faith to collect this much data. Knowing what questions to ask and what organizations to partner with is important.

“Where the data resides, how it gets where it can be processed, analyzed and visualized — there aren’t simple one-size-fits-all answers to [these questions],” he said. “You must venture down path for some distance before you start to see results, and they could be negative, but that’s the nature of the project.”

Big data and world food security

Precision farming is one of the fastest growing areas of technology for large-scale and small-scale farming operations in the quest to figure out how to increase the world food supply. Though crop yield monitoring has been around for almost two decades, the development and implementation of smarter farm machines, crop sensors, and the software to analyze data that these devices collect has recently become a game-changer in yield results, as we discussed in our recent TechRepublic feature story on big data and the future of food.

Intel is working with University of California, Davis, and the World Food Center on big data’s role in precision farming techniques. The actual project involves placing crop sensors in fields to monitor the moisture levels in the snow.

“It makes it interesting from big data analytics. One particular stream of data when combined with other source of data, so it’s not just soil moisture, nature, and composition combined with weather and climate,” Sharma said. “That combo of data sets is a better predictor of that irrigation operation, [whereas before] it was purely based on hindsight, or on guesswork.”

Irrigation techniques are an important piece of this project as well. As the demand for food and farmland increases, so does the demand for water. Globally, the agricultural industry uses about 70% of world’s freshwater supply, which is more than twice the industrial and municipal use. In addition to waste, the irrigation techniques used today often flood farms and wash sediment and pesticides into water systems and groundwater, polluting the environment.

Technology companies will have to find a way to work with agricultural companies as the big data and cloud world intersects with the agricultural one. Intel said the crop sensor system used at UC Davis could decrease water usage by 50%.

“A lot of traditional farming equipment companies will make smarter equipment simply by building more computing, connecting to devices, creating smart tractors and pumps that survey the immediate surroundings and respond in real-time to anything that looks like an anomaly,” Sharma said.

Intel is trying to stay ahead of the game. When the information is gathered from the crop sensors and sent to the UC Davis data centers, it is accessible to many scientists and developers, who can then create better models and methods. As the partnership between the tech and ag industries progress, the question of who holds and owns the data will remain a top priority for farmers, and it will hopefully be the same for big tech and ag companies.

Sharma said the company wants to continue to look into opportunities for big data in the food system, including the supply chain for restaurants and stores and in the manufacturing industry.

“We take our responsibility as members of this community seriously. It’s not just immediate commercial value for us, the system vendors and builders,” Sharma said, “but also the end users and organizations driving change, and [we want to] assist them in whatever way we see useful.”