New Electronics looks at how engineers from Analog Devices are helping farmers around the world through the deployment of the intelligent edge to increase agricultural productivity.

In lower-income economies the success of a family garden has enormous significance but much like larger commercial farmers they are at the mercy of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns driven by climate change. In economically underdeveloped countries where agriculture is one of the primary drivers of GDP their success, or failure, goes beyond economic concerns. In fact, national stability could be at risk.

Up to 80% of rural households in some developing countries depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Populations in these regions are also most at risk of climate change and women and children are particularly vulnerable. In fact, 822 million people remain undernourished, of which 149 million are children - stunted because of undernutrition.

Climate change and food insecurity pose an existential challenge and according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “It’s in the world’s interest to ensure climate change does not jeopardise development and stability in poorer countries. Investing in climate resilience… can be less expensive than humanitarian relief and reconstruction after a disaster.”

Higher temperatures, water scarcity, droughts, floods, and greater CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere can affect food production. A multiyear study by the International Food Policy Research Center predicted that Guatemala and Costa Rica will each lose 17% of their rainfed corn yields by 2050 due to climate change. Honduras will lose 12% of its yield, with Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Nicaragua each losing roughly 8%.

Farming on the edge

While little can be done to protect plants from hurricanes or rising sea levels caused by climate change, the emergence of Intelligent Edge technologies is enabling large farms and smaller gardens to better manage and improve their crop yields. These solutions place computing power in smart devices at the point of use on the edge of traditional computing networks.

Traditional networks rely on a hub-and-spoke model, sending data from distant locations to centralised data centres for analysis and decision-making. Processing power comes at the expense of immediacy and transport risk. Moving processing power nearer to data sources offers greater responsiveness and efficiency, especially in rural farming communities.

Analog Devices’ engineers are currently working with small-scale commercial farmers in the Philippines to create closed-loop Intelligent Edge solutions to monitor and respond to the real-time irrigation and fertiliser needs of their coffee crops. Potential benefits include more efficient use of farmers’ limited resources, greatly improved coffee crop yields, and at the national level, potentially returning the Philippines to its place as one of the world’s top coffee exporters.

Coffee production in the Philippines has decreased from 68,800 metric tons in 2016 to 60,600 metric tons in 2020, a 12% drop of 8,200 metric tons in just four years, driven by changing weather patterns and a lack of agricultural technology to combat the uncertainties of those changes.

In 2017 the Philippine government announced a 5-year coffee roadmap to revitalise the sector. That plan led to a partnership between Analog Devices and the Amadeo Cooperative Coffee Farm in Minantok East, Amadeo, Cavite.

Together the two have created a zero-error, closed-loop system that senses and analyses hydration and fertilisation levels in the soil and the plant leaf. The system enables water and nutrients to be supplied at the right times and at optimal levels to maximise crop yield.

“Efforts to reverse falling coffee-production levels in the Philippines made it a perfect location for ADI’s Intelligent Edge technologies. We are ecstatic about the initial impact we see and the future potential,” said Manny Malaki, Senior Director of COS and Project Sponsor, ADI Environmental Team.

Edge farming technologies that can sense and act instantly on local weather and microclimate changes are enabling farmers to control what can be controlled and ensure their crops are properly watered and fertilised, regardless of weather patterns.

The solar-powered Analog Devices system uses sunshine to collect and analyse information on soil status and coffee plant health, wirelessly transmitting data and instructions to water and fertilising systems in real time.

Leveraging the Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine in the ADI MAX78000 AI microcontroller, the system continues to learn over time and improve its ability to balance water, macronutrients, and pH in response to the smallest of environmental influences. The solution is able to sense all variables at desired intervals, ensuring crop needs remain optimally addressed for plant health and growth.

Future-proofing

The teams at Analog Devices and the Amadeo Cooperative Coffee Farm started with just one small plant in the basement of an ADI engineer. A full mock-up of the system was tested in a single flowerpot under a grow light and yielded promising results. Alternating drought and heavy rain conditions, data was collected in real time while water and fertiliser adjustments were made.

“We could see right away the Edge solution could be game-changing for the cooperative. After our engineering team analysed the results, we were excited to share the information with the cooperative and move forward with additional trials,” said Romulo Maggay, Principal Engineer and Project Lead, Analog Devices.

“The next step was to rerun the tests on the farm with one plant and soon after expand to ten plants. The Amadeo Cooperative Coffee Farm generated some startling insights in the seven-month trial using those ten plants. These results are precisely what our coffee farmers need right now,” explained Randy Mendoza, farm site owner, Amadeo Farmers Association.

Phase two of Intelligent Edge system testing is now underway at three larger farms in three different areas of the country, each with its unique microclimate. All use larger-scale systems and analyse resilience against changing tropical weather patterns. More broadly, the cooperative is now developing long-term plans to reclaim unused land and expand production.

Luzviminda Amparo, Amadeo Department of Agricultural Head, said, “Maximising our crop yield with new technology is a very good example of responding to climate change with intelligence and foresight. I’m looking forward to expanding the collaboration on various crops that are important to our economy and our local food sources.”

Starting with a single plant, ADI engineers and farmers at the Amadeo Cooperative have shown the promise of Edge technology.

Partnering at the government level is possible in the Philippines and other nations as well, which can provide the extra economic support farmers need to access these productivity and efficiency-enhancing systems.

An effective way forward

As climate change advances, it’s critical that technology that dampens its effect is developed. The Intelligent Edge holds the promise of helping to maximise crop yield in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

By implementing closed-loop Intelligent Edge solutions, it is now more viable to expand beyond coffee to rice and beans - the staple for many underdeveloped countries. Offering access to this new technology could significantly improve crop yields, drive down costs, and have a positive impact on food insecurity in the Developing World and across the globe.

Agricultural practices will continue to evolve as the world becomes more populated and urbanised. There is an opportunity to scale ADI’s AI-powered Edge system to suit the needs of everything from massive commercial farms to individual greenhouses and home gardens. Beyond coffee, virtually all food-producing plants can benefit from self-learning fertigation systems.

Technological advances have long played a role in making farms more efficient, from machinery that plants and harvests, to massive irrigation and watering systems.

Intelligent Edge technology is revolutionising how we adapt and control our homes and holds the same promise for farms and their day-to-day operations. With smart, closed-loop fertigation systems, farmers can mitigate some of the impacts of climate change, spending less time tending to and worrying about their crops and more time planning for a future in which they can play a larger role in meeting the demand for food globally.

“It’s encouraging to think about a future where intelligent, learning technological systems can be designed to help address some of the agricultural impacts of climate change and expand food access around the world,” concluded ADI’s Malaki.