Amanda Ramcharan: Learning the rules of tech on the farm

Amanda Ramcharan has dedicated her graduate studies to researching and studying farm systems in order to understand the conditions in which they thrive. Early on, she realized that she could use her fascination with technological tools and gadgets to help her better understand how farms can use technology to help assess and solve problems that arise in this system. She knows how to image crops, how to analyze them, how to figure out which ones are growing well or poorly on a given farm. But to develop tools that help her get that information, first, she had to go from the ground up to the sky: “I’m just flying over fields where there’s no Internet service that are really off the grid. But when I studied for my remote pilot license exam, I realized how demarcated our airspace is, for what you can and can’t do.”

Amanda is the first woman in Pennsylvania to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate. She flies drones that use advanced imaging and machine learning technology to give farmers and researchers insights about the quality of their crop. She has to log every flight, as drones are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the same authority created to secure US airspace in the age of commercial aviation. Like many people experimenting with new, exciting technology, the tools Amanda uses on the farm are governed by laws that weren’t designed for the sector she works in. At the launch of the Refresh project last month, former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted that our current laws need to be updated to address the challenges—and opportunities—of the digital age: “We need to look at our regulatory systems writ large and understand that they were designed for a day long ago. They weren’t designed for the pace of change that we have today.”

Drones are only one example of new tools being adapted to improve the nation’s food system in ways that lawmakers haven’t necessarily anticipated. Amanda explains that open-source software, which is software created and maintained for free by a community of interested users, might also have a role to play in food production, distribution, and consumption. “I use open-source software and it’s really great that I can access free software to test. But when I tried to get into more complicated analyses, there’s less documentation, or somebody hasn’t documented it yet, or somebody has not developed that module yet, or it just can’t efficiently compute the size of the dataset that I’m working with.” Open-source software has the potential to help democratize innovation by allowing developers to build upon the work of a community rather than creating software from scratch each time they imagine a new application. Amanda explains that it is still so new that we’re constantly debating the ethics around open-source innovation, a necessary ingredient for recognizing, supporting, and promoting its benefits.

These are just two examples from one person’s work that help to highlight the complexities involved in addressing regulatory hurdles and creating accessible technological tools in order to ensure that they can be leveraged across multiple sectors, such as agriculture. As a diverse set of stakeholders drawn from across the entire food system, the Refresh Working Group is working to identify and understand these issues from a wide range of perspectives. Because, as Amanda points out, diversity is the key to address all these issues and more: “I think that as more diverse people get involved and become knowledgeable about AI, then you have more diverse use cases.”

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