Zero hunger is one of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals—but the world is falling short, and the crisis is only growing. The organization estimates the global pandemic alone could put 130 million people at risk of suffering acute hunger by the end of this year. By 2030, more than 840 million people around the globe could be living in hunger.
Attacking the problem at a more systemic level, Alphabet’s X lab relaunched a tech-driven initiative designed to scale sustainable production and create more efficient ways to feed the world. With scientists and farmers testing a range of software and hardware prototypes, the Mineral project uses AI, robots and sensors to cultivate data-driven solutions. The mission is to grow more nutritious food without creating more negative impacts on soil or the overall environment.
“From strawberry fields in California to soybean fields in Illinois, we’ve been learning about crops from sprout to harvest, so we can find new ways to help breeders and growers understand how plants grow and interact with their environment,” Elliott Grant, PhD, project lead, X, San Francisco, California, USA, wrote in a blog post.
With the same parent company that’s pushing the envelope on search (Google), driverless cars (Waymo) and high-altitude internet access (Loon), X views Mineral as a potentially pivotal player in the agtech revolution.
At the heart of the project’s data-gathering is an electric-powered, four-wheel rover prototype that uses sensors and cameras to inspect and monitor crops. The insights collected by the so-called plant buggy will help the team analyze environmental factors like crop development and soil health. Then the team will integrate that information with satellite imagery and weather data to identify patterns and create predictive models for how the plants will grow and interact with their environment.
Powered by AI and machine learning, Mineral aims to generate data that growers can use to make better decisions on fertilizers and insecticides. To keep farmers and scientists on the same page, Grant says the team’s tech specialists and scientists will collaborate with agricultural experts and farmers to devise practical solutions that yield real-world benefits.
“Just as the microscope led to a transformation in how diseases are detected and managed, we hope that better tools will enable the agriculture industry to transform how food is grown,” he wrote.