The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Craig Rupp, co-founder of agriculture sensor and analytics company 640 Labs. The company makes the 640Drive, a connected sensor and data transmission device that collects information from agricultural equipment and sends it to a mobile device for viewing and analysis in an app. Craig discussed the problem of farmers not having access to their own data and the convenient technological addition to agricultural equipment that made 640 Labs’ sensors possible.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Travis Korte: The 640Drive plugs into a tractor’s diagnostic port. What kind of information does it collect?
Craig Rupp: All modern tractors have what’s called a controller area network (CAN) on them. Think of it as Internet on a tractor. It carries all sorts of information on the engine, transmission, temperatures, torques, how much power you’re exerting. If the farmer’s pulling a planter, all the information from that implement flows onto that bus as well. It’s actually an open standard that all those messages conform to.
Most tractors now also have global positioning system (GPS) receivers on them. In addition to all the machine data, implement data, and planting information, there’s a GPS receiver that is sending out latitudes and longitudes and altitudes. So whenever we receive a message, it’s timestamped very accurately and is also geolocated. So we can very accurately tell what the yield was at a certain location in the field because we have moisture information, grain flow, and the geolocation of that data.
TK: Who do you feel is the 640Drive’s main audience? Is it Big Ag, or more like smaller farmers?
CR: We’re agnostic. We’re not selling the farmer any inputs: we’re not selling seed, equipment, fertilizer, or nitrogen. We’re working with growers, the farmers themselves, in giving them more information. A lot of agriculture information today is asymmetric. It’s maintained by seed companies or co-ops and the farmer doesn’t really have access to their own data, believe it or not. So we’re trying to give them a frictionless method of having access to their own data.
TK: Why don’t farmers have access to their own data?
CR: One problem is when you contract things out. A lot of times a farmer will contract out, say, pesticide application to a local co-op. The co-op walks away with that data and the farmer never has access to it thereafter. There’s also various formats, various platforms, lots of PC-based software, and farmers four-to-one are using Apple products, so they don’t have access. You give them a shapefile and they don’t have the tools on their Macintosh computer to load that data in and do analytics on their own. So we’re trying to create an open platform where we hold their data and we provide a web-based interface such that they can view and make decisions on their own.
TK: Granular farming data seems valuable in aggregate too. Is there anything you can do with that larger dataset?
CR: We have thought about that, but the one thing that we want to maintain is data security for the farmers. They’re a little hesitant about giving their data out, even on an aggregate scale. However, we have thrown around the idea that if farmers want to compare themselves anonymously to other farmers to see how their yields compare, for example, we could provide a means for that. Obviously we would anonymize very carefully for that. Rolled up into maybe a county or maybe a state, farmers can compare themselves to others. We are not doing that today, however. It will be up totally up to the farmer if they participate, though.
TK: What’s the significance of “640?”
CR: Good question. In agriculture, every company that you come across has the words “farm,” “ag,” “field,” or “crop” in their names. We wanted to give the impression that we were an agriculture data company, and we knew every farmer would understand what “640” was. 640 is a very common number in agriculture: it’s the number of acres in a square mile. It resonates with farmers.