According to a report published today by The Economist titled “TV Dinners”, Microsoft is busy with an experiment in Washington State in the US that it hopes will transform agriculture further afield.
For the past year, the firm’s engineers have been developing a suite of technologies there to slash the cost of “precision agriculture”, which aims to use sensors and clever algorithms to deliver water, fertilisers and pesticides only to crops that actually need them.
Most existing precision agriculture systems work out at $1,000 a sensor, according to the Economist. That is too pricey for most rich-world farmers, let alone those in poor countries where productivity gains are most needed. The cost comes in getting data from sensor to farmer. Few rural farms enjoy perfect mobile-phone coverage, and Wi-Fi networks do not have the range to cover entire fields.
In contrast, the sensors used in the Microsoft experiment employ unoccupied slices of the UHF and VHF radio frequencies used for TV broadcasts, slotting data between channels. Many countries are experimenting with this so-called “white space”; to unlock extra bandwidth for mobile phones. In the sparsely populated countryside, says Ranveer Chandra, a Microsoft researcher, there is unlicensed space galore.
“We’ve already built sensors for less than $100,” says Mr Chandra. “Our aim is to get them to under $15.”