UCSB SmartFarm uses cloud computing to help farmers increase sustainability

The cloud. 

It's that mysterious term that IT technicians rattle off but never really explain, the confusing technology that somehow backs up our phones, saves our endless emails, and allows for quick and easy video streaming on Netflix. 

Cloud computing technology–which allows businesses and individuals to deliver and receive storage, processing power, and other computing services online without costly IT infrastructure–is behind many of the online commercial services we use.

Thanks to an ongoing research project launched by two UC Santa Barbara professors in 2015, the cloud could soon be widely used by the agricultural industry to help farmers tackle the increasingly challenging environmental and economic issues they face. 

Through the project, UCSB SmartFarm, researchers are investigating how the use of low-cost sensors, self-managing cloud systems, and data analytics could help farmers gather detailed and localized data about their crops. Better data, according to SmartFarm leaders, could lead to more sustainable agricultural practices. 

"They're basically taking what Google and the internet are doing with information and applying it to ag," said Beth Grafton-Cardwell, a research entomologist at UC Riverside. "And that hasn't really been done." 

Grafton-Cardwell, who specializes in citrus pest management, also directs the Lindcove Research and Extension Center, an agricultural research site stationed in the San Joaquin Valley that is home to experimental greenhouses, orchards, and packlines. SmartFarm and Lindcove researchers have been working together for a little more than a year, Grafton-Cardwell said, and right now, they're focusing on frost prevention. 

SmartFarm's low-cost temperature monitoring sensors were set up throughout Lindcove's orchards early this year, and Grafton-Cardwell said they allow growers to more accurately see if, when, and where frost prevention methods are needed. 

"For the citrus industry, frost is a big problem for a bunch of reasons," said Rich Wolski, a computer science professor and co-founder of UCSB SmartFarm. 

Most farmers either use large propane-driven wind machines or irrigation to prevent frost, Wolski said. Both mitigation strategies are expensive, labor intensive, and environmentally unfriendly. 

click to enlarge UCSB SmartFarm uses cloud computing to help farmers increase sustainability
FROSTBITE: SmartFarm researchers use temperature monitoring devices with two sensors, one placed high above the canopy of a fruit tree and the other at a lower level in the tree. The low cost sensors can be put in several locations to more accurately determine whether or not wind machines will be effective in protecting against frost.

But with SmartFarm sensors deployed throughout a farm, growers will be able to easily differentiate between blocks that need frost management and those that don't, from the comfort of an on-site data center. Instead of fanning or irrigating the entire farm, growers can apply mitigation strategies only to the specific areas that need it, when they need it.  

"So you save tons of carbon, money, labor, and hopefully lots of water," said Chandra Krintz, also a UCSB computer science professor and co-founder of SmartFarm.  

Wolski and Krintz, who have been working together on the SmartFarm research project since they returned to academia a few years ago, said that the same strategy used to collect crop data and prevent frost could be used to address countless other challenges in the agricultural industry. The professors said they hope the project will help farmers of all kinds use less water, labor, fertilizer, and fewer pesticides.

The project, which is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, is a collaborative effort between several students and professors at UCSB, Fresno State, and Cal Poly, and several local farmers and ranchers. 

Many of the group's software artifacts are already available open-source, meaning anyone can use SmartFarm technology free of charge. Although Rich and Krintz said their technology could be used to create a successful start-up company, a route they've considered, they'd rather continue using SmartFarm software for research purposes–for now. 

"It's really exciting because SmartFarm is attracting all kinds of amazing undergraduates who weren't necessarily as excited about cloud computing as we thought they would be," Krintz said. "But they want to have an impact on society so they're banging down our doors." 


Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash writes School Scene each week. Information can be sent to the Sun via mail, fax, or email at [email protected]

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