X is a crop-sniffing buggy

Nick Statt

Alphabet’s X lab, the that launched the Waymo self-driving car unit and other ambitious projects, has officially announced its latest “moonshot”: a computational agriculture project the company is calling Mineral.

The project is focused on sustainable food production and farming at large scales, with a on “developing and testing a range of software and hardware prototypes based on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, simulation, sensors, robotics and more,” according to project lead Elliott Grant.

A blog post outlining the project’s vision says Mineral, which now has an official name but may have launched in secret around 2017 according to Grant’s LinkedIn page, try and aim technology toward solving issues around sustainability. Those include feeding of Earth’s growing population, and producing crops more efficiently by understanding growth cycles and weather patterns. The project will also hope to manage land and plant life as the effects of climate change complicate ecosystems.

“To feed the planet’s growing population, global agriculture will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than in the previous 10,000 — at a time when climate change is making our crops less productive,” reads the new Mineral website.

“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,” explains Grant. “Over the last few years my team and I have been developing the tools of what we call computational agriculture, in which farmers, breeders, agronomists, and scientists will lean on new types of hardware, software, and sensors to collect and analyze information about the complexity of the plant world.”

One of the first of these tools is a new four-wheel rover-like prototype, what the Mineral team are calling a plant buggy, study crops, soil, and other environmental factors using a mix of cameras, sensors, and other onboard equipment. The team then uses the data collected and combines it with satellite imagery and weather data to create predictive models for how the plants will grow using machine learning and other AI training techniques. The Mineral team says it’s already using the prototypes to study soybeans in Illinois and strawberries in California.

“Over the past few years, the plant buggy has trundled through strawberry fields in California and soybean fields in Illinois, gathering high quality images of each plant and counting and classifying every berry and every bean. To date, the team has analyzed a range of crops like melons, berries, lettuce, oilseeds, oats and barley—from sprout to harvest,” reads Mineral’s website.

Grant says the Mineral team will collaborate with plant breeders and growers, farmers, and other agricultural experts to come up with solutions that are practical and have real-world benefits. But the project does have high-minded ambition. And Alphabet’s track record in that department is strong. Waymo is now a leading company in the self-driving car space that just further opened up its fleet of functioning driverless vehicles to residents of Phoenix. The connectivity division Loon, which uses floating balloons to deliver internet access, has also partnered with telecoms around the globe.

“What if every single plant could be monitored and given exactly the nutrition it needed? What if we could untangle the genetic and environmental drivers of crop yield?” Grant writes of Mineral’s far-off goals. “What if we could measure the subtle ways a plant responds to its environment? What if we could match a crop variety to a parcel of land for optimum sustainability? We knew we couldn’t ask and answer every question — and thanks to our partners, we haven’t needed to. Breeders and growers around the world have worked with us to run experiments to find new ways to understand the plant world.”


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Author: Nick Statt {authorlink}
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