Standardizing Precision Agriculture

The introduction of trains in the U.S. in the early 1800s brought to light the perils of not having standards when building an infrastructure. One immediate problem was the lack of standard gauge on the rails. Each railroad owner chose a rail gauge for the stretch of track in their local geography. In many cases, the selected gauge was deliberately different so that a local railroad owner could control the flow of commerce. Shippers would have to remove cargo from one train onto another when encountering a different gauge of track. This lack of standard gauge in the mid-19th century resulted in growers, in some areas, paying more to transport produce to market than to grow it in the field.

Another problem that arose as the railroad system became national was the tracking of time. In the mid-19th century, every community across the country could choose a local standard for time. Travelers passing from one community to another would see clocks jumping forward and backwards in hours as their train passed through the different local time zones. The lack of standard time zones resulted in confusion in the movement of goods along with costly inefficiencies in delivery. By the start of the 20th century, trains were safe and easy to use due to standard rail gauge and time zones, and a commerce commission that regulated practices.

Precision agriculture has reached a point in its evolution where it could benefit from standards. As increasing numbers of growers implement precision ag hardware and software solutions into their management practices, the lack of standards hinders their ability to take advantage of innovations. Furthermore, the lack of standards stifles competition and prevents the creation of a viable infrastructure of interoperable technologies. Upon making a first purchase of hardware or software, a grower may feel locked in to that precision agriculture technology either due to the inability to incorporate other offerings or simply because of economics. Consequently, if something better comes along, the grower may be forced to start over again with a new investment in time and money. Without the ability to make easy and cost-effective changes, the grower ultimately misses out on new solutions that could reduce operational costs or add value to production.

Reasons For Standards

The implementation of standards in precision agriculture would facilitate growers in making upgrades in technologies, ensure interoperability of components in a recognized architecture and foster a healthy competition within the industry. A number of issues must be addressed for the successful implementation of standards. The first is “terminology.” The precision agriculture industry needs to use a common set of terms when describing and supporting new technologies. While some terms, such as global positioning system (GPS) or geographic information system (GIS), are commonly used throughout the industry, many are unique to an individual vendor or geographic region. For example, in the visualization of field boundaries, one finds a wide range of terms such as background imagery, map or display, reference imagery or map, landscape map and navigation map.

A second issue is formats and protocols. Information technologies are a significant part of precision agriculture. Accordingly, large amounts of data and information are passed to and from field equipment, computers, and users. In order for data and information to seamlessly move among hardware, there must be content formats and communication protocols. For example, data stored as binary files may be incompatible in format with CSV or XML files. In the case of communication, hardware ports may support USB devices but not Ethernet for the transfer of information.

A third issue is incompatible equipment or software. Incompatibility of equipment and software is particularly frustrating among users in the precision agriculture community. Be it yield monitors or guidance systems in the case of hardware, or variable rate application maps or as-applied data in the case of software, every vendor seems to have a unique solution. While design differences are expected among venders, these differences should be interconvertible with each other, especially in terms of the transfer of data and information.

Even More Issues

A fourth issue is performance measures. Objective measures need to be identified for judging the performance of equipment and software. These measures can be as simple as a list of commonly-defined features to describe functionality or sophisticated as a series of industry-approved tests for quantifying performance. It is important that all performance measures be unbiased, logical, relevant, reasonable, and easy to implement.

The fifth and last issue is training and education. Any grower or other stakeholder in the precision agriculture industry should have access to training and educational materials on the implementation and use of a new technology. Formal knowledge of a new technology will ensure its proper integration into an existing operation and provide an understanding of its strengths and limitations with current practices.

The call for standards in precision agriculture has been echoed in publications and professional journals. It has been championed by institutes, associations and other trade organizations. Recently, a number of hardware and software companies have voluntarily met to consider standards.

Precision agriculture has reached a point in its maturity where it must get on track and implement standards for the good of the grower and the industry at large.

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7 comments on “Standardizing Precision Agriculture

  1. Its a really eye opener fact. Especially developing countries are just peeping in to Prec.Ag , vendors of different components of PA should be careful enough to transform/simplify in to local farmers’ need or level of understanding, otherwise this remains as white elephant. I am worried about usage of gps/gis/vrt they keep away the users a little bit. go for standardised simplication just like which exist in automobile/mobile technology or any routine consumer products. Thanks Mr.Russo
    patilmb Ag. Scientist , India

  2. Well said Joe, we all need to work together to set standards for the benefit of the farmers and the technology providers. Those of us who help farmers adopt and use the technology and train them to use it effectively would greatly appreciate the chance to use a “systems approach” that takes advantage of a variety of potential vendors of technology. I think the industry would make much better progress in getting this technology adopted.

  3. I didn’t intend to be “anonymous” on that comment, but would also like to add that I am interested in working with Joe and others to help get this standard-setting moving forward. Technology vendors should “win” the sale because they have a good tool, not because they force farmers to stick with their non-complient specifications. The latter will eventually lose in the market place.

  4. I agree completely with your breakdown here. I believe standardization has become a bottleneck issue in the growth of the precision agriculture industry, and as you’ve pointed out, it’s the grower who ultimately pays the price.

    I was wondering if there has been any movement toward involving an unbiased 3rd party. I’ve often thought it might be useful to work with an existing organization such as the Open GIS Consortium to form a precision ag branch, leveraging their experience and success in developing, managing, and promoting GIS standards. What are your thoughts on this?

  5. One of the biggest issues with standards efforts in precision ag field hardware is that the technology quickly outpaces the slow standards process. By the time the ISO 11783 spec got complete enough to implement for basic features, people were already having to implement work arounds so they could implement features there were not even thought of when the spec started. Guidance is a prime example.

    And, then, you have the issue of standards stifling technology. For instance, Deere uses AB guidance that has consecutive lines parallel. Trimble has lines that converge at the pole (or vice versa). Do you want a standards organization impose a definition of AB lines? Or just describe a conversion from one philosophy to the other?

    I do think there are more opportunities for standardization in the transfer of management data than has been implemented today. It is something that many groups have taken up… and then let wither. I think it is because they go for the holy grail of standardizing data dictionaries. Maybe we would be better served to succesfully define a standard shapefile supplement that provides the metadata for each column in the shapefile? A group that could get the industry to a common definition in that simple area might have the opportunity to lead into the more difficult tasks.

  6. I think the AgGateway Consortium would be a good place to start and collaborate with: http://new.aggateway.org/AboutUs.aspx

    I’ve heard the members have already had discussions about forming a precision ag committee. They are being funded by the Ag Retailer industry with the mission of standardizing data communication.

    Standardizing on a shape file may be a start but I really don’t think were too far from removing the need for files all together and using web services for data exchange. This is if we could get a standard data dictionary established. Getting involved with Ag Gateway may be the best route since they already have been working on Vendors, Ag Chemicals, Seed, and Fertilizer product standardization.

  7. Mr. Russo’s point is well-taken. In order for an industry to thrive, there must be certain basic parameters that market participants can recognize and benchmark against. Mr. Macy also makes an excellent point about how standards can become a cudgel, stifling innovation. That is precisely why W3C is knocked constantly by critics, the argument being that larger companies have circumvented the standards process to control the flow of potentially disruptive innovations.

    Would it be best, then, to embrace only a few select protocols, and let the market sort out the rest? Why not pick a “box” of supported protocols, and let the user decide what fits best (or offers the most flexibility)?

    For example, my laptop supports Ethernet, USB, SD, DVD, Blu-Ray, and 802.11b/g/n for data transmission. Why not build GIS software built for rapid indexing and data layering of millions of data points, and allow companies to compete by building a better user experience?

    That is to say, should we embrace a philosophy of standardizing the “bridges” that connect the products (data, connectivity) and services, and allow the consumers’ response to sort out the rest? Isn’t that, in essence, what Mr. Russo was driving towards?

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