The Crooked Road To Precision Ag Progress

No doubt, these are exciting times for precision agriculture. Across the full strata of our industry — from crop protection and fertilizer manufacturers to seed companies, ag retailers and agronomic consultants down to the farmer — virtually everyone is talking about it.

To which we here at the PrecisionAg Institute say, fantastic! Let’s all cram onto the technology adoption bus and get moving. We’re happy to see it all moving forward in a positive direction, because frankly, it’s been a long road getting where we are today.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been asked to present to groups on the state of precision adoption – where the industry has been and where it’s headed. We found it necessary to encapsulate the historical perspective in a breezy but informative way to give folks a sense of the past. While somewhat painful to recount some of the fits and starts we’ve had in the 25-ish years we’ve been plugging away at precision ag, it also gave us an appreciation for how far we’ve come.

Chapter 1: The Noble Cause

If you think about precision ag as the linking of technology with agriculture in an effort to improve the approach to farming, then precision really started in the mid-1980s with the development of the Soilection variable rate fertilizer system. The tenacious entrepreneurs had little more than the electronic equivalent of stone tablets to work with: Ground-based radar GPS; 286 desktop computers; primitive aerial imagery. But they proved the concept, and while it took several more years to commercialize it captured the imaginations of researchers, consultants and entrepreneurs and drove the next waves of discovery.

Chapter 2: Innovation and Evolution

The mid 1990s was brimming with possibility with the convergence of four key technologies: satellite GPS; Al Myers’ yield monitor, increasingly powerful and inexpensive computer processing power, and of course, the Internet. The yield monitor would provide the yield scorecard that was sorely lacking, while GPS would reference everything we do to specific points in the field. And while the true impact of the Internet would not be realized until it became wireless and accessible, smart folks could envision the possibilities.

Chapter 3: The Great Disillusionment

From the end of the 1990s through the middle 2000s, precision languished. An economic downturn had growers abandoning the precision-driven recommendations in droves. The ROI for variable-rate was, at best, inconsistent. The technology overpromised and underdelivered in many cases. There were some dark days for manufacturers and service providers, and some very interesting ideas went up in flames — at least for a while.

Chapter 4: Rebirth With Efficiency

A convergence of another sort set precision up for a renaissance: the development of assisted steering and high-accuracy GPS systems. First unleashed by Trimble, then popularized by a low-cost system from Outback Guidance, assisted steering served to revitalize interest in precision technology. It also encouraged the adoption of higher end GPS such as the
real-time kinematic systems that nearly all growers have access to today. Other efficiency technologies emerged as well, such as automatic boom control to reduce skips and overlaps.

Chapter 5: Connectivity and Consumer Electronics

In recent years, high-speed internet began truly infiltrating rural America. This, combined with wildly powerful mobile technology, is allowing unprecedented connectivity from supplier to service provider to farmer. It’s the connectivity, and ability to move information around with relative ease, that’s created so much excitement about the future. It has also unleashed a storm of applications designed to help “on the ground” ag folks take full advantage of the technology.

What’s next? That’s a big question that could fill a book, but we wanted to take a crack at some of what we see as the burning issues surrounding precision technology: where we are, and where we are headed. In this “Forward With Precision” report, we delve into variable rate application, conservation, unmanned aerial vehicles, sensor technology, and robotics. Each area has made progress, and feature both opportunities and challenges as they move into the future. But each will have a prominent role in the future of precision agriculture, and we look forward to following the progress of each in the years ahead.

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