Emi­rati us­ing satel­lites to help UAE farm­ers

Farmin tech com­pany has had sup­port from the UAE Space Agency. Kelsey Warner learns about its ori­gins

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE -

Acon­se­quence of the UAE’s am­bi­tious space pro­gramme is that a new crop of grad­u­ates are look­ing to the sky – rather than be­low the earth – to ex­tract pre­cious re­sources.

This is true for Emi­rati en­trepreneur Dr Ali Al Ham­madi, co-founder of Farmin, a new Abu Dhabi tech­nol­ogy com­pany that aims to use satel­lite im­agery and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to mon­i­tor crops. The goal of this high-tech sur­veil­lance is to help farm­ers op­ti­mise their yields while min­imis­ing costs and the im­pact to the en­vi­ron­ment.

Agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties con­trib­ute nearly a third of to­tal green­house gas emis­sions, ac­cord­ing to a joint re­port from the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency. This is in part ow­ing to the use of chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers and pes­ti­cides. As food pro­duc­tion grows to feed a ris­ing pop­u­la­tion, emis­sions are on an up­ward tra­jec­tory un­less farm­ers can fig­ure out how to be dras­ti­cally more ef­fi­cient with their use of chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers.

Partly in re­sponse to this grim re­al­ity, the global mar­ket for farm man­age­ment soft­ware is an­tic­i­pated to reach $4.2 bil­lion (Dh15.4bn) by 2025, ex­pand­ing an av­er­age of 17 per cent an­nu­ally over the next six years, ac­cord­ing to In­dian com­pany Grand View Re­search.

If Dr Al Ham­madi is suc­cess­ful, his com­pany can help farms re­duce ris­ing green­house gas emis­sions and put the UAE on the map for emerg­ing agri­cul­ture tech­nol­ogy amid boom times for the in­dus­try.

Grow­ing up, he watched his par­ents farm Rhodes grass, toma­toes and let­tuce in the harsh UAE land­scape. Then while pur­su­ing his PhD in chem­i­cal and biomolec­u­lar en­gi­neer­ing from Rice Univer­sity in Hous­ton, Texas, he was cap­ti­vated by the vast farms of the Amer­i­can south.

His mo­ti­va­tion to launch Farmin came di­rectly from “the in­ef­fi­cien­cies and lost re­sources that I ob­served in UAE farm­ing com­pared to the US”, he says.

“A quick com­par­i­son in­di­cates that UAE pro­duces lower yield while con­sum­ing more re­sources. I wanted to use my PhD knowl­edge in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to ex­tract data from satel­lite im­agery to help farm­ers bet­ter mon­i­tor their farms and re­spond to low yields.”

Dr Al Ham­madi, whose day job is as an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Khal­ifa Univer­sity, where he teaches chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing and ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, took a break to com­mit more time to his idea when he ap­plied to an en­trepreneur­ship pro­gramme spon­sored by the UAE Space Agency and Krypto Labs in Mas­dar City, Abu Dhabi, a pri­vate in­cu­ba­tor for start-ups. His con­cept to use satel­lite im­ages to im­prove farm­ing was cho­sen among 80 ap­pli­cants to be one of two ven­tures to par­tic­i­pate.

The GeoTech In­no­va­tion Pro­gramme fur­nished the fledg­ling com­pany with Dh500,000 in in-kind sup­port – of­fer­ing of­fice space, men­tor­ship and net­work­ing with the end goal of trans­form­ing the Farmin con­cept into a com­mer­cially vi­able prod­uct.

“Farmin is a prime ex­am­ple of con­tribut­ing to the knowl­edge-based econ­omy” be­ing fos­tered in the UAE, says Anas Zeined­dine, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Krypto Labs, who saw first-hand the in­ex­pe­ri­enced start-up founder go from turn­ing his bright idea into a ro­bust proof of con­cept over this past sum­mer. Within five months, Dr Al Ham­madi had a web­site and glossy mar­ket­ing ma­te­ri­als. But more im­por­tantly, he had two years’ worth of archival satel­lite im­ages of a swath of Omani farms

– the equiv­a­lent of mil­lions of pho­tos – to train his AI pro­gramme.

Each pixel of a satel­lite im­age of farm­land rep­re­sents about three square me­tres. Com­bin­ing the ob­ser­va­tions in ev­ery pixel with drone mon­i­tor­ing and soil test­ing, all of that data is then sorted by ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to gen­er­ate a re­port for the farmer to use.

The re­port spits out yield data as well as rec­om­men­da­tions to com­bat dis­ease or ad­just fer­tiliser lev­els, im­prove wa­ter ef­fi­cien­cies and fore­cast what that sea­son’s soil will pro­duce. AI can also help to pre­dict po­ten­tial prob­lems.

“I want farm­ers to be strate­gic in­stead of re­ac­tive,” Dr Al Ham­madi says.

The first cache of im­ages he re­ceived for the farm in Oman were bought from US satel­lite im­agery com­pany Dig­i­tal Globe, but it was too ex­pen­sive for Farmin to main­tain a sub­scrip­tion.

He is in a bind since he needs satel­lite data to train the AI, but with­out the data he can­not land pay­ing cus­tomers.

So his next hur­dle is find­ing a large part­ner to buy the satel­lite im­ages he needs to bring his prod­uct to the UAE mar­ket. Ideally, he says Farmin would build a pro­gramme that mon­i­tors all of the UAE’s farm­land

so that crops are be­ing grown as ef­fi­ciently as pos­si­ble on a na­tional scale.

Pock­ets deep enough to fund such an am­bi­tion do ex­ist. Two years ago, DuPont, the Amer­i­can biotech and ma­te­ri­als sci­ence gi­ant, ac­quired AgTech start-up Gran­u­lar for $300 mil­lion, a com­pany that

is do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar to Farmin but is fo­cused mainly on US farms.

When Gran­u­lar started out, it was funded by lead­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists An­dreessen Horowitz and Google Ven­tures.

As Dr Al Ham­madi has al­ready dis­cov­ered, the sky is not the limit.

Pawan Singh / The Na­tional

Dr Ali Al Ham­madi with the crop mon­i­tor­ing tools he cre­ated open on his lap­top at Krypto Labs

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