One small experience can leave you humbled; one small spark can inspire you for a lifetime. This is the story of how Dr Ranveer Chandra, Chief Scientist at Microsoft Azure Global, is making agriculture more sustainable and fruitful, all while having a PhD in Computer Science.

With over 80 patents and 100 papers under his name, Ranveer Chandra is a true engineer, constantly seeking solutions to the world’s problems. On the fourth edition of Newton Speaks, he talked to us about some of his technologies, and his passion for data-driven agriculture.

Having made his way into IIT Kharagpur, Ranveer was quite the all-rounder, participating in various events, contesting for elections, and still ranking 3rd in his batch. Like most university toppers, he went on to do a PhD despite his wishes to study MBA. But the independence he received, the freedom to go where not many wander, motivated him to think outside the box.

His initial life as a researcher involved a lot of reading, thinking, ideating and prototyping ideas. During his PhD, he built Virtual Wi-Fi, which enabled users to connect to multiple wifi systems, something we use daily! Despite the numerous offers from various universities, he opted to join Microsoft Research in 2004, because he believed that there, he would be able to transform his work into tangible applications, which could help people in their everyday lives. In his words, “I try to bridge (the research that I do) with a business model.”

One of the things he is currently working on is a project called FarmBeats. Started in 2014 as a long-term endeavour, it aims at addressing the world’s food problem. “If we are able to tap into the data available from various farms, intelligent decisions can be taken, which will be sustainable and cost-efficient.” Dr Ranveer’s main inspiration behind this was his yearly visits to his grandparents’ farm during his school vacations. Ironically, he hated farm-work, but those days spent at the farm exposed him to the issues faced by farmers. Since then, his prime motivation has been to alleviate their problems and contribute to their cause.

Being aware of the high prices that the farmers would have to incur, the team made a bold statement - that they would make new tech to reduce costs by halves. One of the ways they devised was the use of TV WhiteSpaces. Using UHV and VHV spectrum to increase the effective area under Wi-Fi connectivity, a signal can be sent over twelve times the standard coverage area, without affecting any current broadcast. Another idea developed by them was to use balloons mounted with a phone to act as drones and applying AI tech to check for properties like soil moisture, temperature, wind speed etc. Yet another method was to have Edge computers on each farm to handle the processing of data before sending them to the cloud.

Ranveer’s passion and excitement towards data-driven agriculture were evident when he mentioned a paper that he was currently working on. As titled by Bill Gates in his blog “Can the Wifi chip in your phone help feed the world?”, this ingenious research primarily aims to reduce the cost of sensors so as to make it affordable to farmers in India and Africa. It deploys the use of the Wifi chip in the farmers’ phones and exploits the duration of the Wifi signal to calculate the moisture content and electrical conductivity of the soil. This innovative and out of the box idea has received several awards and secured global recognition.

When asked about his favourite part of being a scientist, he mentions that apart from doing something that no one has done before and being in a work environment where you are your own boss, it is the idea of serving the society that gives him immense satisfaction. Ranveer focuses on the significance of placing the right bets by making a calculated move confidently and pragmatically, inspiring us all with a very cardinal lesson.

The impact of Ranveer’s research is indeed humongous and broad-ranging. The talk was not only informative and eye-opening but it was also a wake-up call to act now and incorporate technology into a sector without which, none of us can thrive.

To know about FarmBeats from Bill Gates himself, follow the link to read his blog: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Development/FarmBeats

To watch a full video of the talk, check out: https://youtu.be/pL5Sm-xS1Rk

Vardhah Anees & Abhishek Jain