Big Data & Precision Agriculture

GreenSeeker Sensor System

There is new term creating a lot of excitement in technological and scientific circles. It is “big data.” Big data refers to the generation of enormous amounts of data due to new technologies for measurement, collection and storage. Data are accumulated in such vast quantities that they defy conventional analysis techniques. As we will see, big data offers great opportunities but also major challenges. Before discussing how big data will impact precision agriculture, it may be instructive to learn how it has impacted another field which literally redefines itself through continuous observations.

The field of astronomy during the past two decades has undergone a rapid improvement in the ability of telescopes to collect data. If we assume that all data can be defined in terms binary digits or “bits,” then we can calculate how much data are in an image, book or table. This is because we can construct bytes from bits which numerically define colors, letters and numbers. The bigger a telescope is for making observations, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. The greater the density of picture elements or pixels in the same viewing area of a telescope, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. The faster the recording of images in a telescope of the same size and pixel density, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. With each new telescope launched into space or constructed on the ground, there has been acceleration in data realization.

The improvement in telescopes along with their “big data” capabilities is best illustrated through examples. The popular, exoplanet-hunting Kepler telescope, launched by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has a density of 95 million pixels with the capability to sum imaged data over 30-minute intervals. The Kepler telescope can precisely measure the light emitted from over 100,000 stars. This periodic tracking of stars has increased the number of known exoplanets from in the tens to in the thousands. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is an international collaboration of ground-based, radio telescopes to observe galaxies, stars and planet formation. It began generating 40 terabytes of data per day when it became fully operational this year. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a public-private partnership, has a 3-billion pixel density. It will be able to image an area of the sky that is 49 times the size of the Moon when it becomes operational in 2015. It has been estimated that there is now a doubling every year in the amount of data being collected in the field of astronomy.

The exponential growth of data requires new thinking on how to look at data. Today, it is humanly impossible to look at all but a tiny portion of astronomical data using conventional analysis. Consequently, in place of humans, computer programs conduct comparative analysis on large stores of data. Through a step-by-step procedure of calculations and/or comparisons, programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets. For example, in the case of the Kepler telescope, the tell-tale variation in light from a star reveals the presence of an orbiting exoplanet. A computer program can identify this variation with an algorithm and conduct an analysis of a star’s extended time series in the blink of an eye. While new telescopes are generating “astronomical” amounts of data, new algorithms are being written to analyze these data.

New Ways Of Thinking Needed

While agriculture is a latecomer to the big data phenomenon, it will soon follow a similar path as astronomy. Precision agriculture, with its time-dependent, geospatial data at the field scale, will be front and center in the realization of big data in agriculture. As sensors are placed on machinery, arrayed in soils and canopies and flown remotely overhead, the amount of data collected in the field will increase geometrically. As was the case in astronomy, it will be become humanly impossible to analyze data collected in an agricultural setting. And like in the field of astronomy, computer programs will be relied upon to conduct nearly all the analyses of large data sets.

Big data by its sheer volume of information offers a number of opportunities for precision agriculture. At the most rudimentary level, ingested data can be analyzed in real-time to flag critical values important for production decision-making. At a more sophisticated level, high resolution spatial maps of soil moisture can direct the efficient use of irrigation. Similarly, detailed maps of pest damage can allow for the precise targeting of controls in a field. At the most advanced level, remote-sensed data coupled with measurements made with sensors on machines or arrayed on the ground can be processed to create a dynamic, three-dimensional picture of soil, plant and environmental properties in a field. This picture would be composed of many layers of data, which singly or together can support specific management decisions.

The big data opportunities can be overshadowed by their challenges, especially in the early going. First, there are very few “data” scientists or persons who know how to create and execute the algorithms necessary for analyzing large of amounts of data. Second, there is commonly a mismatch in the scale, precision and accuracy of data coming from different sources. This mismatch can create an erroneous picture of what is actually happening in a field.

Third, big data, like all data, needs to be quality controlled before it is used in algorithms. The necessary quality control procedures can become pretty elaborate and time-consuming. The fourth and most important challenge is the interpretation of products created by algorithms processing large data sets. Interpretation of data patterns is very subjective. Every individual has their own way of looking at the world according to their beliefs, prejudices and preconceived notions of acceptable outcomes. Consequently, no two individuals will reach exactly the same decisions after interpreting big data patterns.

We can conclude that big data will increasingly become part of precision agriculture and will heavily influence our production decision-making in the not-too-distant future. We can also conclude that there will be a learning curve on the part of agricultural stakeholders making decisions based on big data.

The incorporation of big data in decisions, while challenging, may be one of the things precision agriculture needs to do to get back on a growth curve.

Subscribe to the Newsetter!
Get your free weekly Precision Ag Newsletter!

Leave a Reply

3 comments on “Big Data & Precision Agriculture

  1. Without any doubt and in a complete agreement with the article: "programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets". Certainly a big challenge is use in presicion farming area those tools coming from the multivariate statistics field.

  2. Without any doubt and in a complete agreement with the article: "programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets". Certainly a big challenge is use in presicion farming area those tools coming from the multivariate statistics field.

Joe Russo Stories
Joe RussoData Privacy, Ownership In Precision Agriculture
September 3, 2013
The line between what data and information a grower is willing to share, and a company is allowed to use, will keep vacillating in the future. Read More
Joe RussoBig Data & Precision Agriculture
April 25, 2013
As the ability to collect data expands exponentially, precision ag users will need to start relying on computers to help crunch all of the numbers. Read More
Joe RussoThe Future Fusion Of Machines, Models And Sensors In Precision Agriculture
February 1, 2013
As technology improves, the lines between certain ag tools are certain to blur and combine. Read More
Trending Articles
Precision Ag Innovation Series
DataMore than 100 Organizations Already Committed To Attend August 31 Data Platforms Conference
July 8, 2015
The list of attendees and company representation continues to grow -- join us on August 31 in Champaign, IL for "Understanding Data Platforms: Putting Knowledge To Work." Advance discount expires July 20. Read More
DataClimate Corp: We’ve Mapped Nearly 45% Of U.S. Corn And Soybeans
June 25, 2015
Today, The Climate Corporation, a division of Monsanto Company, announced that farmers have mapped more than 75 million row crop Read More
Precision Ag Innovation Series
DataAugust Event To Focus On Data Platforms In Agriculture
May 27, 2015
The PrecisionAg Innovation Series is proud to present "Data Platform Solutions: Putting Knowledge to Work." This one-day forum delves into the state of data platform offerings in agriculture, what's working, and where things are headed in the future. Join us on August 31 in Champaign, IL. Read More
DataFarmers Edge Adds Investment Partner
May 27, 2015
Data management and precision solutions provider Farmers Edge, announced the backing of new investment partner Mitsui & Co., Ltd. Read More
SoftwareTrimble Opens Up Irrigate-IQ
May 4, 2015
Trimble announced today that it has launched a new fully scalable version of its Irrigate-IQ precision irrigation solution that also Read More
AwardsNominations Open For 2016 PrecisionAg Awards Of Excellence
April 28, 2015
The PrecisionAg Award of Excellence program sheds light on some of the most important people and programs that have helped agriculture realize the full benefits of technology to improve agronomy, efficiency, and stewardship in crop production. Read More
Latest News
EquipmentAGCO Launches New 3D Robotics Platform-Based UAV
August 4, 2015
AGCO Corp. announces the arrival of the SOLO AGCO EDITION Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Utilizing intuitive mission planning and cloud-based, Read More
ComputingInfoAg 2015: 5 Things I Think About The Week That Was I…
August 4, 2015
THE eager hands have all been shaken and the introductions made, the drinks with colleagues sipped and the banner stands Read More
ProTrakker SonicTrakk Mounted
EquipmentProTrakker Adds SonicTrakk to Implement Guidance System…
July 30, 2015
The precision agriculture industry continues to introduce new products that allow for increased accuracy and control. ProTrakker, an Iowa-based manufacturer Read More
HardwareNew FarmLogs Hardware Device Automatically Creates Yiel…
July 29, 2015
Today from InfoAg, FarmLogs, the leading all-in-one field monitoring platform and trusted partner to over 25% of U.S. row crop Read More
DataFarmLink CEO Calls For Connected Farms, Investments To …
July 29, 2015
The agriculture industry is poised to leverage advanced data-driven, connected technology and sharing models to drive new innovation that will Read More
AutoProbe
DataAutoProbe Automated Soil Sampler Expands Grower-Centric…
July 28, 2015
AutoProbe Technologies continues to grow its network of AutoProbe intensive sampling system providers and grower owners. AutoProbe Technologies has added Read More
Rod Weimer and Paul Schrimpf
AwardsAwards Of Excellence: Colorado Grower Named 2015 Farmer…
July 28, 2015
Rod Weimer, a farm manager at Fagerberg Farms along the Front Range in Eaton, CO, has been named the 2015 Read More
Raj Khosla and Paul Schrimpf
AwardsAwards Of Excellence: Dr. Raj Khosla Named 2015 Precisi…
July 28, 2015
Colorado State University professor Dr. Raj Khosla, a distinguished Monfort professor of precision agriculture and an assistant dean of international Read More
Dave Scheiderer and Paul Schrimpf
AwardsAwards Of Excellence: Dave Scheiderer Receives 2015 Cro…
July 28, 2015
Dave Scheiderer, founder, Integrated Ag Services (Milford Center, OH), has been named 2015 Precision Ag Crop Adviser/Entrepreneur award winner. Scheiderer was Read More
AwardsDr. Randy Taylor Honored With 2015 Precision Ag Legacy …
July 28, 2015
Dr. Randy Taylor, professor and extension engineer, machinery systems 70/30 extension/research; Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, Oklahoma State University, Read More
DataAGCO, Trimble Collaborate To Connect Agriculture Data P…
July 28, 2015
AGCO and Trimble have announced they are partnering to deliver wireless connectivity between AGCO’s VarioDoc and AgCommand systems and the Read More
iSOYL app
DataSOYL Introduces New App At InfoAg
July 27, 2015
Making its debut appearance at the 2015 InfoAg conference in St. Louis, MO, SOYL will be exhibiting its groundbreaking new Read More
EquipmentGEOSYS Launches Daily Satellite Imagery Program, API Co…
July 24, 2015
GEOSYS has released two new offerings, Croptical Monitoring Application and GEOSYS Bridge API, to give agronomists critical field insights and Read More
Ag-Tester, Dignan
UncategorizedAg-Tester Offerings Help Ensure Equipment Is Precise Al…
July 22, 2015
Ohio-based Ag-Tester, an InfoAg 2015 exhibitor, is now offering portable units that test the operability of valves, flow sensors and PWM motors without removing them from the equipment. Read More
DataAutoProbe Adds Kansas, Missouri Distributor
July 22, 2015
AutoProbe Technologies names Effertz Farms, Belton, MO, a new grower-centric sales and service provider for southeast Kansas and western Missouri. Mike Read More
DataGranular Secures Series B Financing For Specialty Crops…
July 22, 2015
Granular announced the close of its Series B financing today. Tao Capital Partners led the round and was joined by Read More
Farmers Edge
Variable RateFarmers Edge Celebrates Grand Opening Of Shakopee Headq…
July 22, 2015
Farmers Edge celebrated the Grand Opening of its new Shakopee, MN, headquarters on July 21. Farmers Edge representatives, along with Read More
ImageryAmerican Farm Bureau Federation, Measure Launch Drone R…
July 21, 2015
Today, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Measure released a study that identifies and quantifies the benefits of drone technology Read More