Facebook steps into agriculture with artificial intelligence

19 Aug 2020

Facebook has gotten into agriculture through its partnership with California-based Blue River Technology, a subsidiary of John Deere. The Silicon Valley social network company is using its open source PyTorch machine learning library that was developed in the Facebook AI Research lab to power a robotic farming machine that identifies and sprays weeds.

Called See & Spray, the PyTorch-enabled neural network technology separately identifies weeds from crops within a matter of milliseconds and only sprays the weeds with herbicides, reducing the use of chemicals by up to 90%. This targeted technique reduces the costs associated with weed prevention and also gives farmers a more consistent, precise and efficient means of weeding crops.

Facebook steps into agriculture with artificial intelligence

See & Spray robots employ a high-resolution camera that has been fed with thousands of images of weeds and crops in order to help the AI establish a difference between the two types of greenery. Once the AI network can establish a difference, then uses computer vision and machine learning in order to "see" a field and accurately identify and target weeds with pesticide while leaving crops unharmed. The models that inform the neural networks are supported by Facebook engineers, and Forbes reported that the company says it will be a core maintainer of the platform going forward.

Artificial intelligence solutions in agriculture is a growing industry. Already, these technologies span a variety of applications ranging from rural automatons, computerized water system frameworks, facial acknowledgment, and driverless tractors. However, as technology becomes more sophisticated, the use of AI will become more widely adopted. ResearchAndMarkets anticipates the global market for AI in agriculture to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23.7% from $0.65 billion in 2018 to $4.43 billion in 2027. The market research firm predicted that the agriculture market in the Asia Pacific region will have the most widespread adoption and greatest growth.

Nor is Facebook the only technology company to deliver these computer-powered solutions to farmers. Some of the key players in artificial intelligence in agriculture market include Farmers Edge, Granular, Ageagle, Descartes Labs, Gamaya, Ec2Ce, Precision Hawk, IBM, Deere & Company, Microsoft, The Climate Corporation, Prospera, Taranis, Awhere, Right-To-Win, Vision Robotics, Autonomous Tractor Corporation, Tule Technologies, Resson, and Cropx Technologies.

While AI has become commonplace further up the CPG supply chain with blockchain technology that offers supply chain transparency, intelligent solutions for farming are newer to the sector.

Despite its relative newness to the industry, having a machine that uses only 10% of the pesticides that are typically used by farmers today could have radically positive impacts on earnings. Prices for herbicides have risen significantly since 2006, according to a 2016 University of Illinois study. Data from this report shows that the sum of costs that include fertilizer, seeds and pesticides jumped from an average of 36% of crop revenue prior to 2006 to 48% after that year. Therefore, even a fractional reduction in the use of pesticides could free up farmers’ revenue and help alleviate some of the pressure associated with depressed crop prices in the U.S.