IBM’s instant AI Soil Analysis – the AgroPad

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To successfully grow record breaking giant pumpkins plants have to be carefully pruned and nurtured, watered in abundance and regularly fed with the correct balance of nutrients. Too much calcium and not enough magnesium and it can all be over. The really serious growers send off their soil for detailed analysis before they start wasting their time and money on high NPK fertilisers, but this takes time. What if growers of all crops worldwide could conduct soil tests themselves, a test which went beyond the existing readily available basic pH tests and instead gave instant details of nitrogen dioxide, aluminum, magnesium and chlorine levels? What if that test produced the results in under 10 seconds? Well IBM are close to delivering just such a solution for farmers and it’s called the AgroPad.

What is the AgroPad?

The AgroPad has been a work in progress since 2018 when Mathias Steiner of the Industrial Technology & Science team at IBM Research (Brazil) first outline the project’s aims:

  • The AgroPad is a paper device not much larger than a business card.
  • A drop of water or soil is placed on the AgroPad and a ‘microfluidics chip’ inside the card performs a chemical analysis.
  • The back of the card displays a series of colormetric tests, each circle representing a different chemical analysis.
  • A dedicated mobile app scans the card and would enable a farmer to receive an instant chemical test result within seconds.

IBM call this ‘AI on the edge’ – machine vision algorithms translate color composition and intensity to chemical concentrations with much greater accuracy than the human eye can and, over time, they learn and improve.

Obviously giant pumpkin growers are not the target market for IBM’s Industrial Technology & Science team – commercial farmers however could find the AgroPad infinitely useful. Multiple samples gathered over time in multiple locations would provide a detailed monitoring service, creating visual representations of soil composition levels and assisting in the prediction of fertiliser purchasing needs. Better for the farmer’s wallet AND the environment.

The exciting news this week is that a deal has been struck between IBM and a US based non-profit called ‘Enveritas’ to pilot the AgroPad devices. With over 100,000 smallholder coffee growers in Africa and Latin America already working  with Enveritas they hope to roll out the AgroPad to them all with a target IBM production cost of less than $0.25 per AgroPad unit. This will go a long way towards achieving the Enveritas goal of ‘ending poverty among smallholder coffee growers’ if it helps them to grow more for less and escape from the poverty of earning less than $2 per day.

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About Author

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Matt has worked in digital publishing for twenty years, holding management positions at Nature (nature.com) and William Reed Business Media (foodmanufacture.co.uk, thegrocer.co.uk etc). He has also worked with Wiley Interscience, The IET, Centaur Publishing and BBC Worldwide. Since 2010 Matt has been a digital consultant working with B2B media & event companies in the agricultural, automotive, aviation and technology sectors. His private passion is growing his own food (on three allotments) and chasing the dream of a one tonne giant pumpkin. He is a member of the British Garden Media Guild and was a finalist in the Garden Media Guild Awards 'blog of the year' category in 2018 and 2019.

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