Alphabet builds a plant-inspecting buggy for sustainable farming
Alphabet’s X moonshot factory is a research group working to solve big-picture ideas through technological innovation, and for its latest venture the team is turning its attention to sustainable farming. Called Mineral, the project aims to leverage cutting edge software and hardware to allow growers to raise more diverse crops, with a specially-designed plant-inspecting buggy set to do the heavy lifting.
The Mineral team points to our reliance on a relatively small number of crop types as the motivation for the project, with much of our farmlands dedicated to raising rice, wheat and maize. This makes our farming susceptible to pests, disease and climate change, while also degrading the quality of the soil and the diversity of its microbiome.
The team sees an answer in what it calls computational agriculture, in which advanced hardware, software and sensors will allow farmers to tap into the genetic diversity of the 30,000 edible plant species around the globe. This could allow them to identify and grow more resilient crops in certain environments, and lessen reliance on fertilizers, chemicals and water.
As a starting point, the team began gathering information on things like soil, historical crop data and weather in different locations. They then built a prototype plant buggy to monitor how plants are growing in these different environments, putting it to use in Californian strawberry fields and soybean crops in Illinois.
The electric buggy uses GPS to pinpoint the exact locations of each plant, and then cameras and sensors to gather intel on the plant health. This has enabled the buggy to analyze crops like melons, lettuce, oats and barely, and offer detailed insights such as leaf and fruit size, plant height and bean counts.
This information is then mixed with other data on weather and soil along with satellite imagery, and machine learning is then used to identify patterns and offer insights into how the plants are growing in that particular environment. The hope is that this ability to monitor individual plant health over time will help farmers better predict crop yields and boost the overall production of their fields.
“Just as the microscope led to a transformation in how diseases are detected and managed, we hope that better tools will enable the agriculture industry to transform how food is grown,” says Elliott Grant, who leads the Mineral project at X.