Most Influential Projects 2021

17 Mineral

Mineral includes an electric-powered rover that collects granular data about soil health and crop development.

For cultivating next-gen tech to feed the world

The latest innovation out of the Alphabet Inc.’s moonshot factory X aims to transform how the world produces food: promising higher yields with less harm to the environment. Mineral brings together plant breeders and growers across Argentina, Canada, the United States and South Africa to test new models for sustainable farming using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). 

Such agtech innovations can’t come soon enough: The number of people suffering from hunger has nearly doubled since the pandemic—and could reach 840 million by 2030. And the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to eliminate hunger is trending in the wrong direction. Mineral’s project leaders say the world needs as much food in the next 50 years as was grown in the previous 10,000. 

“To grow food sustainably on a global scale, new tools will be needed to manage the staggering complexity of farming,” Elliott Grant, PhD, project lead at X, wrote on the company’s blog.

At Mineral’s core is an electric-powered rover that collects granular data about soil health and crop development. Software will then help food producers address issues with individual crops instead of entire fields, reducing costs and curbing the use of harmful fertilizers and insecticides. 
Delivering the project in October 2020 required a pandemic pivot: Lockdowns were preventing the team from sending the robot to collect timely images of plants as they emerged from the soil. Rather than delay the project by a full growing season, the team fashioned smaller versions of the vehicle that could be shipped to farmers to gather the necessary data. 

That shift vividly demonstrates that solving the hunger crisis will require farmers, scientists, technologists and project leaders to embrace an adapt-to-reality mindset, Grant says. Or, as one team member told him: “You can declare it a disaster and wait until next year, or you see it’s a problem you just haven’t solved yet.”