High Need for High-Tech Weather Intelligence

Posted by Steve Cubbage on Tue, 03/05/2019 - 12:36

The Old Farmer’s Almanac, published since 1792, sells 3 million copies each year. It’s nothing short of amazing in this day and age of high-tech weather satellites and Doppler radar that farmers tend to put so much stock in a publication that has been making weather predictions much the same way since the late 1700s.

But let’s face it. Mother Nature is a fickle lady, and she can still make the most seasoned modern-day weather forecasters look like fools.

Until recently, the task of understanding and forecasting the weather defaulted to government agencies, such as the National Weather Service (NWS) and NASA, and private companies such as Weather Underground and The Weather Channel, both now part of IBM. As site-specific precision ag technologies continue to evolve, weather information at the most basic and granular level has to get much better for big data and artificial intelligence to work. Data needs to be delivered in the right format, at the right place and at the right time.

Think of the consequences of the lack of localized weather forecasting and monitoring. What if you chose hybrids from yield data without knowing the seed company’s racehorse hybrid only won because a spotty shower in July just happened to hit the two fields where it was planted. That’s the epitome of knowing enough to be dangerous.

The need for accurate real-time weather at the farm gate is becoming more real every day. For example, warning systems that predict the likelihood of dicamba drift before it actually happens would be helpful. What if forecasts could be tied to grain bin monitoring systems that calculate optimal drying times and simultaneously optimize energy usage? Or, what if you could monitor the potential spread of specific pests and diseases based on minute-by-minute changes in the weather pattern. How much better would tomorrow’s nitrogen models and fungicide applications work when coupled with better weather information?

Funded by investment money, innovative companies are changing the business of weather. One unique young company is ClimaCell, which was formed by three Israeli military veterans who reunited while pursuing graduate degrees at MIT and Harvard. This trio knows how much weather can impact military ops, so they thought together they could do better than NWS. Their solution extracts weather data from cellular networks and combines it with historical and traditional weather data and feeds from a host of other sensors. It’s no secret weather can greatly affect cellular performance. This Boston-based company harnessed that knowledge into a software to create hyperlocal, minute-by-minute forecasts, which is called “nowcasting.”

Startup company Understory, based in Madison, Wis., pins its enhanced forecasting ability on hardware more than software alone. The company manufactures modernized weather stations called RTis (real-time instruments), which monitor hail, wind, rain, temperature, pressure and humidity at the ground level every second of every day. The proof of concept convinced Monsanto to sign on as an investor in 2016.  

Another company a little more established, but still relatively new to the weather scene, is Denver-based aWhere. This diverse environmental intelligence company processes more than 7 billion data points every day to create a complete global ag weather offering that is hyperlocal and claims to be highly accurate. The business offers field-specific, scientifically vetted agronomic models to drive decision-making by automatically identifying plant growth stages, maturity tracking, harvest readiness, pest and disease likelihood and crop stress.

Whether it’s these companies or others, such as Earth Networks, Weather Analytics,  Riskpulse, TempoQuest or startups yet to come, agriculture is emerging as one of the main targets. Some day the Old Farmer’s Almanac might be replaced with a more high-tech option.