Millennials, impatience and UAVs: How innovation challenges like Thought For Food are helping change agriculture

In 2001-2002, NASA launched the Pathfinder Plus as the first significant foray into the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in agriculture. The aim was to provide multispectral imagery of coffee plantations to improve harvest timings. The budget for the program was almost US$4 million, and built on many previous years of development. Not to bore you with the details (aren’t UAVs cool?) but the wingspan of the Pathfinder Plus was over 30 m and relied on six electric motors to fly at altitudes of 1000 m. Ground-based pixel resolution was 50 – 100 cm (e.g. my desk/coffee table would be about one pixel).

Fast forward 16 years, and building a hexacopter drone complete with object avoidance, multispectral sensors and autonomous flight controls is as easy as clicking a few buttons online, watching a few videos and burning yourself with the soldering iron. Moreover, it costs just a small fraction of the US$4 million NASA project budget.

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A hexacopter built from online tutorials, online shops and trial and error! This platform is capable of <1 m GPS accuracy, <4 cm altitude hold accuracy and 4K video and for less than $3000.

 

And clearly UAVs haven’t been the only area of development in the past 15 years. Micro computers such as the raspberry pi, programming languages and platforms, decision support tools, wireless communications speed and reliability, and data management and analytics have enabled your everyday innovator to help address global problems surrounding food production. There are more open source platforms (think code and hardware that’s freely available for editing and use) than ever before helping capitalise on these gains too. A quick scroll through kickstarter, SproutX’s accelerator program or the Thought for Food winners, and it’s clear that innovations and inventions with significant potential are no longer the realm of multi-millionaires, philanthropists and large government agencies. It’s now everyone’s game.

The distributed network of millennial impatience

 

Building off this rise in technology, communications and social media, the millennial generation is often typecast as one glued to screens, constantly connected and highly impatient with life in general (Game of Thrones series really take a whole 18 months to make?!). This generalisation is often associated with negative connotations, a negativity I don’t necessarily buy.

The connectedness aspect of the generation is certainly helping create a quasi “distributed network” of problem solvers, working together on similar projects for a common goal. For example, the AgriEducate team is based in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, with almost daily communication about new ideas and work that needs doing. Innovation challenges such as Thought for Food rely and thrive on the global connectedness of participants and ambassadors to help improve food security. Thought for Food participants have access to an entire global network of other participants with ideas about their local food security and how that may translate globally. You definitely don’t have to have a whole team to begin with!

At the other end of this distributed network is the so-called millennial impatience. Impatience is often wrongly captured by columnists and commentators as a flaw of the millennial generation. In my mind it should be seen as a passionate desire to solve problems quickly (and not necessarily poorly), without waiting for the go ahead from those above you. Has technology created this productive impatience, or is it simply enabling it? Either way, promoting and capturing this impatience through innovation challenges is helping improve food security prospects.

Innovation: everyone’s game

 

 

What I’ve seen firsthand from my unique experience working with TFFers is that anyone— regardless the type of organization they work in, regardless of their age, expertise or location in the world — can solve the our most complex problems in new ways.

Christine Gould, CEO of TFF

Using the example of the UAV and Christine Gould’s comments, now more than ever, people from all around the world are able to apply their own impatience, skills, awareness of problems in their food supply chain and creative thinking to develop practical solutions.

In times gone by, agricultural research and extension was too often directed from the top in the development of top-down solutions, which may not have encapsulated the practicalities of social and agronomic constraints on farming systems. These days formalised research and extension have embraced the bottom-up approach required for effective change (see some of the Crawford Fund’s work overseas for some great examples).

Nevertheless, while everyone may be able to begin developing and generating new ideas and solutions, support and guidance is invaluable in making sure these ideas become a reality and can form into some on-the-ground change.

And that’s where innovation challenges and the TFF come in.

Cue the rise of the innovation challenge: enter TFF

As the pressure mounts to feed nine billion people by 2050, innovation challenges, such as Thought for Food are combining the passionate impatience, the generational connectedness and situational awareness with support and guidance from big industry players and professionals. This approach is helping drive and support the development of new ideas where they are needed most, and really capitalising on innovation as everyone’s game.

The competition is open now for applications, and I highly encourage you to apply. We all have important experiences, connections and ideas that with a little push and some impatient hard work can become the next step towards global food security. We all share that passionate drive, that impatience for change and results, and TFF can help realise that.

So just like the 2002 NASA behemoth UAV symbolised the start an era of agricultural robotics, remote sensing and data-driven decision making, the innovation challenge signals the promotion of bottom-up ideas, developed by impatient millennials looking to change the world.

Why does the sky have to be the limit when it’s sometimes part of the solution?

Guy Coleman is the Founder of AgriEducate, a massive fan of UAVs and an Australian Youth Ambassador for the Thought for Food Challenge. He’s also on the board of the Ag Institute Australia and will be presenting at the University of Sydney on the 16th February on this topic. For more information please see: https://tas.currinda.com/register/event/1716.