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One of the first industries to grasp the potential of the internet of things was agriculture, where changing weather and soil conditions across vast fields can cost farmers a lot of money if undetected. Now that some of the initial growing pains have been worked out, we’re starting to get a sense of how sensors, data, and artificial intelligence could transform one of the most vital tasks in the world.

Panelists at our 2018 GeekWire Summit last month showcased some of the work that has been done to date on connected farms, and previewed areas in which work still has to be done.

Sensor maps and drones can help farmers improve yields by monitoring the growing conditions, but given that a lot of the U.S. agricultural sector is actually paid not to produce food, finding more efficient ways to use land and water might be the biggest breakthrough that emerges from smart farming.

Panelists Dr. Sinduja Sankaran of Washington State University, Ranveer Chandra of Microsoft, Maria Angeles Capellades Sola of The Climate Corporation, and moderator Ron Zink of Growers. (GeekWire Photo)

“At the moment we are overproducing food and we’re wasting a significant amount in the process of transportation, storage, etcetera, if you think about it globally,” said Maria Angeles Capellades Sola, director of geospatial engineering with the Climate Corporation. “So there is a lot we can do just to reduce waste.”

“Precision agriculture,” or the process of detecting and responding to specific areas across a farm, has had known benefits for decades, said Ranveer Chandra, principal researcher at Microsoft Research. But the equipment needed to implement such a system has been way too expensive for the average farmer to deploy, even among some of the larger agribusiness concerns.

And while waste is indeed a concern, long-term population growth estimates mean we’ll need to increase production at some point as well, he said. “The key goal is how do you bring down the cost of these solutions to make it affordable for all the farmers because in addition to just this aspect, there’s also a human aspect to all of this.”

There are several parts to the human aspect of this discussion, too, according to Dr. Sinduja Sankaran of Washington State University. She pointed out that the average age of a farmer in the U.S. is between 55 and 60, a number that has been climbing.

“I think we have to start small,” she said, finding ways to make traditional farming practices simpler or more efficient before transforming entire ways of growing food around data. She predicted that given current labor trends, automation might soon be very attractive to, for example, apple farmers in Eastern Washington who are struggling with a labor shortage that doesn’t look like it will get any better any time soon.

Watch the full video of the conversation above and see all of our GeekWire Summit coverage here

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