As a critical approach for ensuring food security and protecting the planet's natural resources for future generations, sustainable agriculture emphasizes using environmentally friendly practices to produce food while minimizing the negative impact on the land, water, and air. Drones have the potential to revolutionize sustainable agriculture by providing farmers with a more efficient and precise way to monitor their crops and make decisions about resource management.

To advance precision agriculture and make it more accessible to farmers around the world, Microsoft Research developed FarmVibes. Designed for researchers, practitioners, and data scientists, FarmVibes provides valuable data and insights into their crops and fields. It enables farmers to collect and analyze data from their farms in real time, allowing them to make informed decisions about crop management, irrigation, fertilization, and pest control.

Built on Microsoft's Azure cloud platform, FarmVibes collects real-time data from various IoT sensors, including weather stations, soil moisture sensors, irrigation systems, drones, and other aerial imaging devices, which can easily capture high-resolution images of crops and fields. Machine learning algorithms can then analyze this data to identify crop characteristics, such as plant height, leaf area index, and plant stress.

To help farmers collect, store, analyze their data, and increase their overall profitability, FarmVibes comprises multiple components:

  • FarmVibes.Bot: A chatbot that farmers can use to get quick answers to their questions about crop management, pest control, and other farming practices. The chatbot uses natural language processing (NLP) to understand farmers' questions and provide relevant answers. For example, if a farmer notices an infestation of pests on their crops, they can use Farmvibes.Bot to quickly get information about the best pest control practices for their specific crop and region, helping the farmer to take quick action, address the problem, and prevent further damage to their crops.
  • FarmVibes.Connect: A cloud-based platform that helps farmers connect their IoT devices to the FarmVibes platform, bringing connectivity to remote and rural places. It delivers broadband access via TV white spaces, the unused spectrum that flickers as "snow" between channels.
  • FarmVibes.AI: An artificial intelligence (AI) engine that helps farmers analyze their data and get insights into their crops through machine learning algorithms. As an open-source tool, FarmVibes.AI features a sample set of algorithms to inspire the research and data science community to advance data-driven agriculture.
  • FarmVibes.Edge: A component that enables farmers to collect and analyze data locally, reducing latency and improving the speed of data analysis. Available in a PC form factor device with AI, computer vision, and edge processing, FarmVibes.Edge intelligently compresses large amounts of data from drone scouting flights. It identifies the areas a farmer cares about and ignores other details like roads, efficiently constructing images small enough to be uploaded to the cloud via FarmVibes.Connect.

Recently, GoodLeaf Farms, a commercial vertical farm from Canada, started collaborating with Microsoft Research to explore ways the data collected at GoodLeaf can help Microsoft expand its FarmVibes.AI program to provide additional value for crops grown using controlled environment agriculture. Vertical farms are different from open-field farms in many ways, such as not being affected by extreme weather and not requiring pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. They operate on data, optimizing growing conditions for the best yield and quality.

"Data-driven agriculture will shape the farm of the future," said Barry Murchie, Chief Executive Officer of GoodLeaf Farms. "Data is our most valuable asset and is revolutionizing the way we farm. Microsoft has the resources to assist our evolving industry, and that's very important for us. We're engaged in pioneering efforts in the vertical farming industry and working with Microsoft Azure products and services to help us succeed."

Last year, Andrew Nelson, a fifth-generation farmer, partnered with Microsoft Research to turn his 7,500 acres into a proving ground for Project FarmVibes. By gathering data from sensors in the soil, drones in the sky, and satellites in space, Nelson collects information about his farm at distinct points every day, all year long—temperature variations, soil moisture and nutrient levels, plant health, and more.

"Project FarmVibes is allowing us to build the farm of the future," Nelson said. "We're showcasing the impact technology, and AI can have in agriculture. For me, Project FarmVibes saves a lot of time and costs and helps us control any issues on the farm. With more powerful equipment, I can farm 7,500 acres, whereas my grandfather farmed 750. With Project FarmVibes, technology is helping me get back to farming on that smaller scale – acre by acre, instead of field by field – because I have such a fine-grained understanding of the land."