Can Arable’s IoT tech end world hunger?

In a time of technological, medical and social advances, it’s hard to believe that 795 million people still go hungry around the world. When we learned from one new concept that data acquired through an IoT device could end this, our interest is piqued.

Arable has created PulsePod, an IoT device capable of measuring more about the environment than any other connected device in the world and can provide insight into crop health for the first time in history.

Arable was founded by Adam Wolf, a scientist with a Masters in Agronomy. Prior to Arable, he worked in one of the most remote and poverty stricken parts of the world, working with the Kazakhstan government to mitigate extreme weather and climate change. He believes the way we’re going to end hunger is by using data — so he went to Princeton, built the PulsePod and garnered $4 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, and launched Arable shortly after that.

I spoke to Wolf about Arable this week:

 “I was doing my PhD at Stanford with satellite data simulation and the crop modeling and I really become disenchanted with the model because it was built on a house of cards of faulty assumptions and I really wanted to know what was happening in the world.
There are real fundamental limitations to agriculture. It sounds crazy, but we have no idea about the sensitivity of corn to temperature. This has mammoth food security implications for the future. We don’t know if future corn yields could be about the same as now or as low as 80% yield loss. We really have limited weather stations across much of the world so there’s really no visibility for a lot of people to what’s happening in the field, even in very sophisticated operations. So a lot of what they are doing is guessing, driving around and checking on things, so it means there is a lot of risk exposure for a lot of people, based on assumptions about how much is in the field and what it’s doing.
Even now, 30 years since I started college, there really hasn’t been a lot of change, so the same satellite imagery we studied in the 90’s, the same light sensors and data loggers are utilized. Everyone was complaining but no one was doing anything to change the situation.”

How Arable and the PulsePod helps

The PulsePod features a six-band spectrometer, four-way net radiometer, and acoustic rain gauge that measures more than 40 observation streams including rain, hail, canopy leaf area, crop water demand, environmental stresses, microclimate, and even air pollution. It’s always on and always connected (built-in bluetooth, wifi, and cellular). It’s built for security (military grade encryption), flexibility (an API to plug the data into existing platforms), and control (customers choose how/when/what data to share).

Arable comes with a staff of hardware alumni: their industrial designer developed the Go Pro camera, their mechanical engineer did the design for Fitbit, and their electrical engineer developed the world’s first headset so they’re working with people that are focused around making things small and scientifically rigorous.

Wolf explained that PulsePod enables unprecedented visibility for what’s happening in the field and “for the first time we see farmers able to manage the response of crops to the weather,  processors can predict future yield so they can make marketing decisions, we start to see insurance stepping in to cover risk for small holder agriculture, we really see opening up for these parts of the market that are previously inaccessible in terms of risk. This includes drought forecasting and food security; forest and crop responses to weather and climate change; and rural water usage.

Most data is generated in the US & Europe, while many applications are in rural locales in the developing world. Cellular-based environmental sensing promises to provide granular data in real time from remote locales to improve model-based forecasting using data assimilation.

Wolf noted that weather and crop conditions are not measured in many developing countries. “We have been working with the Met service for Paraguay, up until now they have no weather stations,  only  a radar system for the capital Asunción, so when theres a flood it causes major traffic jams and problems for residents, monitoring allows them  to have real time granular information that can be pushed out to people so they can react.

Even in New York City, weather tracking is needed in storm management:

“The Mayor’s Office contacted us because they have the potential to get floods, but the land underneath the pavement is so complicated that they don’t know how to connect the rainfall in Place A with where it’s going to flood in Place B. Data enables them to work out where to begin, which storm drains to focus on, and how to have the biggest impact. Even in the U.S., we see a picture ranging from wheat production at $500 an acre, to berry production at $100,000 an acre. So we looked at those crops and said where do we even begin, what is the biggest possible opportunity for us to create a platform for other people to be answering questions in their place?”

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Wolf discussed their experiences working with one of the world’s largest berry producers:

“There’s a gigantic need and desire in forecasting for specialist crops, this is one area where there’s a gigantic need and a gigantic desire but really no tools up until now. It’s been a problem as long as anyone can remember. They need to know how many berries are out there in the field to make marketing decisions. So four weeks prior to harvest they were  going out, counting green berries…and they sort of do a little bit of math and estimate how many berries they’re going to sell as a company. So in a given week you’re selling a million pounds of strawberries. That decision is made on counting perhaps 50 berries, and we realized each of those berries is worth a million dollars.

If you counted more you should be marketing more, then they realize the week they harvest, ‘Oh no, we actually have 1.2 million tonnes in strawberries’ and you’re faced with either selling for pennies or leaving them in the field to rot. This plays out consistently amongst speciality crops: they have no hedging, there’s no exchange board, so they are highly exposed with very few tools up until now.

Agriculture is a sector that is greatly benefitting from innovative technology, and Arable offer solutions to problems that have previously seemed par for course. They may not end world hunger just yet, but they’ll certainly make strides in tackling the challenge. So far partners include the U.S. Department of Energy, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, U.S. Agency for International Development and Treasure Wine Estates.

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