Introducing Clever Crop: Inspired by IBM Call for Code

By and Mansi Calapatti | 4 minute read | November 23, 2020

According to an IBM survey of Canadians, nearly three-quarters (74%) said they would personally adopt technology solutions that would help them live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.  A team of IBMers from Canada has taken this to heart and designed and prototyped Liquid Prep, an inexpensive, easy-to-use solution that helps farmers increase crop yield and reduce water consumption.

Imagine you’re a farmer living in a developing country and are responsible for a small farm that produces multiple crops.  You probably don’t have access to the latest agricultural technologies to get the advice you need.  Even if you did, you might not not be familiar with complex farming language or you might not be able to read the language in which the advice is provided.  And you likely can’t rely on traditional community knowledge due to rapidly-changing environmental circumstances.  It can be overwhelming to properly plan, manage, and sustain crop growth.

In 2019, a team of IBMers in Canada had an idea: Create an inexpensive, easy-to-use mobile application that farmers can take advantage of to increase their crop yield and reduce overall water consumption. The solution would provide farmers with watering advice based on the local weather forecast, the crop type, and its growth stage.  It would also use a moisture sensor to provide on-site information about the current moisture level of the soil.

This concept, called Liquid Prep, won the 2019 IBM Call for Code internal challenge. The solution would consist of 3 main components:  A hardware sensor to measure soil moisture, a highly visual mobile application, and a back-end service.  It would work like this: Soil moisture data would be sent from the sensor to a mobile device.  The mobile application would then request pertinent data from The Weather Company from the Cloud.  With that weather data, the app can could calculate a response and display watering advice for the next few days.

Moving from concept to prototype

As part of the Call for Code program, the winning team is given the opportunity to take their idea and move it from concept to prototype. From August through October 2020, the Liquid Prep team members were part of an IBM Service Corps team that was tasked with creating an MVP, or Minimal Viable Product, for the solution.

The team’s first task was to create a prototype of the soil moisture sensor, which needed to be inexpensive, lightweight, adaptable, durable, water resistant, and corrosion resistant. The team built several iterations of the sensor using off-the-shelf components. The final version ended up consisting of an open-source microcontroller board (Arduino Uno), a capacitive moisture sensor, an aluminum rail, and electrical, aluminum and Velcro tape – for an overall cost of about $40 CAD.  When produced at scale, it is expected the price of the sensor would be nominal.  Also, the description of the sensor will be shared freely, so that people can build it themselves with easily accessible and inexpensive hardware components.

The team also prototyped the mobile application, known as Clever Crop, with the primary goal of providing a simple, guided visual experience for the user. A visual experience is particularly important for farmers who may not be familiar with agricultural nomenclature and/or for those with low literacy skills.  The app would be free for farmers to use, and they would also be able to work with it offline.

Finally, the team needed to integrate the Clever Crop app with a back-end service that provided current weather data and crop information.  The back-end leveraged the IBM Cloud, a Cloudant database, and data from The Weather Company. Essentially, requests from Clever Crop are passed to the IBM Cloud through queries to The Weather Company for weather data. Based on this data, the Clever App can provide guidance to the farmer as to whether or not the crops need irrigation.

What’s next?

With the 3 components successfully prototyped, the solution is joining an Internet of Things (IoT) program at the Central New Mexico Community College this month.  This will enable the solution to be piloted and tested on location.  Note: This collaboration was initiated with SmartCone Technologies, Inc., an IBM Business Partner, who will design, develop and produce the sensor housing in the shape of a stick that can be inserted into the soil.

Additionally, the team hopes to collaborate with the 2020 Call for Code winner, Agrolly, who are working on an app that promises to help small farmers around the world fight back against climate change.  The potential synergies between the two teams and the two solutions are promising.  Ultimately, it will be important to scale the solution so that it can be used across the globe as well as integrate more agricultural information into the solution, such as season considerations and soil composition data.

IBM Service Corps is an innovative social impact program that develops IBM leaders, while contributing IBM talent and technology to local communities and non-profit organizations looking to tackle challenging problems.