How Can Drones and Blockchain Technology Support Agriculture?
When Eugene-based tech entrepreneur Jim Cupples came home from a National Wildlife Federation conference in Washington, D.C., he'd already turned his mind to solving a problem presented there: Is there a way blockchain technology can further the use of sustainable agriculture practices?
Yes, Cupples said, there is. And it involves drones.
He's calling it AgCheck, and Cupples is relying on local university students to build it.
“It's really the connection between two different technologies, one of them being drone images and the other one being blockchain technology,” said Cupples, a recent devotee of agriculture technology. “It helps up the credibility of what farmers say they're doing regarding regenerative farming.”
Blockchain is an open list of records that's protected from modification, a technology that has evolved from its origins as a ledger for cryptocurrencies. Cupples said he believes a database of farm photos on a blockchain will help suppliers and consumers verify that farmers are living up to practices they preach.
There's currently only a limited ability to assure sustainable farming practices are being followed as advertised.
National Wildlife Federation Policy Specialist David DeGennaro said much of the sustainable agriculture market exists in “the Wild West of labeling,” leaving consumers to make their best guesses about what they're buying because there's no government agency overseeing that kind of branding.
“For consumers to be confident that the products they're purchasing have a certain sustainability footprint, there has to be some accountability there. One of the weaknesses for many of the sustainability initiatives that exist is that they're self reported by the producers,” DeGennaro said.
That's why a Lane County Community College drone recently flew patterns above Moondog's Farm in Marcola.
Cupples recruited LCC Chief Flight Instructor Sean Parrish and his drone pilot class to participate in the first step of building the AgCheck prototype. Earlier this month, the class programed their drones to map Moondog's Farm with aerial photographs and document the farmer's planting practices.
Cupples likewise brought in two Oregon State University engineering students to use those photos in building the AgCheck blockchain prototype.
“What I found instructive for the students was the fact that we're combining the technology they know very well, drones, with the blockchain,” Parrish said. “These are developing technologies and will be something they'll deal with in the future. It has a lot of forward-looking applications.”
The drone snapped away as it flew over the farm, providing topographical mapping for owners Dan Schuler and Shelley Bowerman, which would help them better plan for their farm's future. But because Cupples has been documenting local agriculture practices for his other project, a database called All The Farms, he knew Moondog's Farm would present an opportunity to provide the first blocks in the blockchain he's hoping AgCheck will offer.
“There's a lot of things you can do in regenerative agriculture, but there's a few that are really visual,” Cupples said. “They're really the big three in regenerative agriculture: No till or reduce till farming; the second one would be using cover crops; and then the third one would be crop rotation.”
The Dec. 6 Moondog's Farm flight was the first, and so far only, opportunity for the AgCheck team to collect images of farming practices. But OSU engineering student Aaron Galati and Josh Fisher are working on a server and website for AgCheck and how to communicate with the blockchain.
“We can verify the pictures are from where they say they were and at what time they were taken. We can take the data from the images and push that onto the blockchain system, which is a public ledger, and that data would be unchangeable,” Galati said. “It's 100% verifiable.”
AgCheck will serve as the engineering program capstone project for Galati and Fisher, which means the prototype must be finished by next spring. Galati says he envisions a user-friendly website that helps people sort farms by their practices, empowering them to make better purchasing decisions.
But Cupples sees other future applications: supporting organizations that offer farm grants for sustainable practices, identifying farms that use appropriate vegetation for thriving bee hives or providing a resource for grocers who want to assure they only purchase from earth-friendly farms.
“The knowledge that we've gained in understanding how to move drone images directly to blockchain is something that has wide applications,” Cupples said. “You could have drones capturing images of boats and prove they were at this time and place and that they actually did capture these fish in a sustainable way. I think there's a ton of other ways that you can use drone-to-blockchain technology.”
“Especially with a lot of supply chain companies who are making these really exciting commitments toward sustainability, such as certain amounts of cover crops or soil health practices, there's issues that need to be figured out how to verify through the supply chain what's actually happening on the ground and whether those practices are actually being implemented,” said National Wildlife Federation Agriculture Policy Director Aviva Glaser.
AgCheck is the first solution the wildlife federation's DeGennaro said he's heard of since the Washington, D.C., conference, but he said he sees one major flaw.
“The idea of flying drones over people's farms is probably not going to go over very well in farm country,” DeGennaro said. “Farmers are fiercely protective of their privacy and their data and what they do on their land. I don't think that's something that we would be advocating necessarily.”
Follow Adam Duvernay on Twitter @DuvernayOR or email [email protected].
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