Rx Maker Helps Growers See Soil for What It Is
Farmers today use technologies such as GPS-equipped harvesters with crop-yield monitors, geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing and variable-rate systems to help them practice precision agriculture. Yet many still lack digital high-resolution soil maps to optimize the use of their advanced technologies.
Rx Maker, a Durham spinoff from Ag TechInventures (AgTI) that will present at the upcoming Crop, Animal, and Food Tech Showcase, 2018 at the Cotton Room in Durham, April 24-25, plans to change that.
The company is developing technology from scientific soil research and precision agriculture at North Carolina State University and Iowa State University. AgTI specializes in commercializing promising university agricultural technologies.
Karen LeVert, CEO of AgTI, said that while Rx Maker has been in development for a couple of years, it is just getting started in earnest this year. She said presenting at the Showcase offers more than a shot at funding. “You get to see the landscape, the new technologies being developed and socialize with potential partners and acquirers. The Biotech Center does a good job with this conference.”
Julianne (Julie) Bielski, chief technology officer, who has 20 years of experience in software development and design and formerly worked for IBM, said Rx Maker intends to use publicly available satellite imagery and other information from sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Over the years, the images have improved in quality and resolution,” Bielski said. “For most of our needs we’ll be able to use those images directly to develop models based on supervised machine learning. We’ll actually be training the system to recognize the variability in soil types.”
In the past, she noted, growers used hand-drawn maps covering broad swaths of land. “They didn’t provide much information for an individual farmer’s acreage.”
What is unique to Rx Maker, Bielski said, is that “we are layering together several sources of information from the same geographic reference source. By that I mean elevation, topography of the field, the electrical conductivity and moisture, vegetation indices, all combined at high resolution so that it’s useful at the field level. We’re teaching the machine to recognize key indicators of variability.”
That will provide information to growers to help them make decisions and help predict financial returns. “The equipment farmers have available today has a lot of synergy with what we’re doing,” Bielski said.
Modern sprayers, spreaders and other agricultural variable-rate equipment can adjust the volume, rate, and how much of what to apply to a field. “But they’re not doing much good if all you have is coarse-grained information,” Bielski said.
“By combining all those dimensions and bringing machine learning to bear you gain the ability to see patterns humans wouldn’t readily see otherwise.” So, she adds, “You can do a much better job of helping them optimize use of their variable rate equipment and predict what types of yields to expect.”
It can help growers decide if they are “growing the right things in the right place and applying the right stuff. It’s a tool providing better information.”
Fields would be monitored over time because, Bielski points out, “Things do change. You have different weather patterns in different years. Farmers change what they grow or their management practices.”
LeVert said Rx Maker is seeking funding of about $1 million. It is already socializing the company with cooperatives and potential partners. With a second-quarter financing close, the company should be in position to begin generating revenue by year-end 2018. “We need the ability to check and train the models,” Bielski said.
The company has testing underway at a pilot site in Illinois.
The Rx Maker team is encouraged by the feedback received thus far and is excited about what’s on the horizon.