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New AI-powered system could revolutionize the way farmers grow and monitor their crops: 'We are taking the blindfold off'

"Almost every grower we spoke to said the same thing: They didn't know how much of the chemicals they sprayed were on their plants."

"Almost every grower we spoke to said the same thing: They didn't know how much of the chemicals they sprayed were on their plants."

Photo Credit: AgZen

When Vishnu Jayaprakash and his team set out to design a system for monitoring the amount of chemicals that farmers apply to their crops, they weren't thinking of AI. 

"We knew we wanted to develop a product to help growers monitor and optimize their sprays. This meant our product would have to account for hundreds of parameter combinations simultaneously," Jayaprakash told The Cool Down. "As we started to test our systems in the field, we quickly realized that AI would be the best way to tackle the incredible complexity a farmer faces whenever they spray their fields."

Jayaprakash is the founder and CEO of AgZen, a company introducing futuristic technology to agriculture. AgZen's new system, called RealCoverage, just hit the market on March 1.

Here's the issue: pesticides are unhealthy for people and the planet

"Once in the environment, pesticides have a catastrophic impact on public health," said Jayaprakash. "Unintentional and occupational exposure to pesticides causes around 20,000 deaths and is linked to 385 million annual cases of acute poisoning globally. Pesticide pollution causes diseases like cancer, neurological conditions, and congenital disabilities, and its impact is felt most in the developing world."

However, pesticides are also essential to modern agriculture. Without them, way too many crops would be lost to insects, weeds, and fungus. "Every year, 20-40% of yield is lost to some pest, weed, or disease," Jayaprakash told The Cool Down — and that's with insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides being widely used.

That means farmers apply a lot of pesticides, and lots of these chemicals end up in the environment, where they affect both people and wildlife. "Pesticides are found 90% of the time in agricultural streams, 50% in shallow wells, and 33% in major deep aquifers across the USA," said Jayaprakash. "A recent study has shown that 31% of all global agricultural soil is at high risk of pesticide pollution."

So, to balance the need for food with the need for a clean environment, the best option is for farmers to apply the smallest effective dose of pesticide and minimize the amount ending up in the soil and water.

Just one problem: Until now, there was no way to know exactly how much that was.

"Almost every grower we spoke to said the same thing: They didn't know how much of the chemicals they sprayed were on their plants," Jayaprakash revealed. "We found that even though farms have been spraying synthetic pesticides at a large scale for 80 years, no one — not the growers, chemical companies, equipment makers, or regulators — knew how much of what was sprayed got to and stayed on the plant."

So AgZen designed RealCoverage, a device that farmers can mount to their spraying equipment in hours. Once it's in place, it monitors the plants being sprayed in real time and relays information about coverage to a tablet.

RealCoverage actually identifies and counts the hair-fine droplets stuck to individual leaves, even while moving through fields at 15 miles per hour — and it also predicts how those drops will spread and evaporate.

With that information, farmers can adjust their applications and use less of each pesticide. "Growers can spray 30-50% less chemicals while getting better pest control and, therefore, better yield," said Jayaprakash. 

Jayaprakash is very familiar with the problems of traditional pesticide use. "I was introduced to spraying as a kid when I sprayed mango trees and rice fields on our family farm in southern India," he recalled. "I had personal experience with how painful spraying was, but I never thought I would work on it as a job."

However, while attending graduate school at MIT, Jayaprakash joined the Varanasi Lab, which was working on more efficient spraying methods. Eventually, that led to AgZen and RealCoverage. "It's been a fantastic journey," he said.

Jayaprakash intends to keep moving forward, too. "We already have a whole host of products planned to launch over the coming years," he revealed. "We have developed a retrofit for existing sprayers that makes droplets stick better to plants without changing the chemistry a grower sprays. We are calling our system EnhanceCoverage and plan to launch it commercially in 2025."

According to Jayaprakash, these products "will revolutionize how growers spray on farms."

"We are taking the blindfold off when it comes to spraying and allowing everyone in farming to optimize every droplet that gets sprayed," he said.

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