A Google search of “Precision Agriculture” yields over 13 million results and will lead the searcher down a never-ending path of related sub-topics, each replete with dedicated websites, publications, organizations and conferences.
So what, precisely, is ‘Precision Agriculture’? Very simply, precision agriculture is an unfortunately imprecise term that is applied to the myriad applications of technology in the agriculture industry. Eight of the more important and interesting of these technological applications are briefly discussed below.
- GPS and other types of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). John Deere is credited with being the first to introduce GPS technology on some of its tractors. The application of this technology began the popularization of the term ‘precision agriculture’ in that the GPS on the tractor allowed the farmer to plow more precisely. That is to say that the GPS could be programmed to help the farmer ensure it was getting the most possible rows and plants in a target field and was consuming the least amount of fuel in the process.
- Digital Cameras. Farmers produce fragile physical goods. What these goods look like at every phase of their development is critical to their ultimate value. Digital cameras embedded in drones (and smartphones) get utilized for mission-critical transfers of information more so in agricultural than they do in the typical office environment. For instance, the ability of cameras to photograph fields in a manner that will allow zoom-in views, down to the bud level in fields, complements VRA Seeding and VRA Fertilizing methodologies (see Number 5 and Number 6 below) and will continue to improve the efficacy and use of these technologies into the future.
- Driverless Vehicles. Robotics and driverless vehicles are safer to implement in crop fields than on public highways because the risk of calamities such as collision with other vehicles can be minimized. Popular forms of driverless vehicles already being used in agriculture include
- AGCO’s Fendt Guide Connect leader-follower technology. This technology allows one driver to control two farm machines by means of GNSS signal and radio. This allows, for instance, a single farmer to drive two tractors in parallel rows across one field at the same time.
- Fendt MARS (Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms), which are essentially small corn seeding robotic vehicles that are lightweight, energy-efficient, highly agile, cloud-controlled and operated from a tablet app.
- Precision Irrigation Systems. These systems adjust water output by integrating real-time data on soil moisture and weather. In addition, precision irrigation systems deliver water as close to the ground as possible to avoid evaporation and wind drift. For example, Netafim USA’s “Precision Mobile Drip Irrigation” is a series of driplines that are pulled through a given field. As the driplines move, integrated emitters deliver a uniform pattern of water across the full length of the irrigated area. Because the driplines deliver water directly to the soil surface, they allow more water to reach the targeted root zone than conventional sprinklers.
- Variable Rate Application (VRA) Seeding. VRA has been around since the mid-1990s but is probably being utilized on no more than 10% of planted acres today. However, this should change due to the ability of digital cameras to gather high quality visual data. As mentioned in Number 2 above, the simple ability to take digital photographs of large areas, with zoom-in capabilities down to individual bud levels, is a radical development with respect to data gathering that should result in improved VRA Seeding methodologies.
- VRA Fertilizing and Nitrogen Modeling. Nitrogen modeling refers to computer-assisted soil analysis with respect to crop growth potential and fertilizer requirements. Nitrogen modeling is considered the cutting edge of variable rate fertilizing, which has been around since the mid-1990’s. An example of a popular nitrogen modeling product is Adapt-N offered by SST Software and Agronomic Technology Corp.
- Sensors and Visual Imaging. Perhaps the most advanced and diverse technologies to date with respect to sensors and enhanced satellite imagery are found in water management. In water-challenged California, in particular, growers are using water and moisture sensors to cope with water scarcity, expense, and increased regulation In addition to water management, wireless sensors are used to measure a wide variety of things including soil compaction, soil fertility, leaf temperature, leaf area index, plant water status, and infestations of insects, weeds, and diseases. For instance, the Trimble ‘WeedSeeker’ identifies weeds and calls for a precise application of herbicides to a particular spot. This type of precise application also allows for monitoring of particular weeds and their tolerance to herbicides and other removal measures.
- Drones. Drones are very popular in agriculture due to their ability to cover vast areas of ground quickly without ever actually touching the soil. Drones are complementary to many of the technologies mentioned above, particularly imaging, VRA Seeding, VRA Fertilizing and Nitrogen Modeling. The use of drones in agriculture will expand for the foreseeable future as drones are increasingly adapted to different functions.