About a year ago, in the backwoods of southwestern Georgia, I was part of a small group of precision agricultural enthusiasts driving late at night to a hotel in a rural town. The lack of familiarity with the terrain, blackness of the night, poor maps, and our inability to ask locals for directions resulted in our getting lost.
One of the frustrated passengers reached in his travel bag and pulled out a global positioning system (GPS) unit. He mounted the GPS on the dashboard of our rental vehicle and fed in the information about the location of the hotel. We immediately got a signal and found that we had driven far too south close to the Florida border. The visual map and a reassuring voice of the dash-mounted GPS directed us to the hotel without error.
This episode of using a GPS in a vehicle to help us navigate to a hotel is not particularly newsworthy, but nonetheless there was a lesson. In our case, we had the option to use the GPS unit. In the future, it will be a necessity to use GPS.
GPS units are becoming so ubiquitous that it is hard to imagine that just a few years ago their purchase was an important economic decision. As they keep getting smaller and less expensive, GPS units will eventually be installed in anything that moves and will be in the hands of any worker needing to make a decision in the field. And when that day comes, the real revolution begins. I say the real revolution because industries will have incorporated GPS as standard equipment and not some novel add-on. What was once a conscious concern involving experts to install and maintain them, GPS units will soon be automatic and operated with a touch of a button.
In this GPS-saturated future, all things spatial and temporal become possible. First, the tracking of vehicles and materials will make for more efficient farming operations. This tracking will become routine as wireless technologies become both affordable and available in all geographies of the U.S. The wireless technologies will be able to transmit real-time signals from the vehicle-installed GPS units to some common hub. From this hub, a “dispatcher” can plan and direct agricultural equipment, materials, and drivers in a timely and spatially efficient manner. Through Web-based, online programs, the dispatcher will have a global view of the operations at any given instant and will be able to anticipate problems, such as bad weather, and change plans accordingly.
Tracking leads naturally to the second future benefit of GPS — traceability. In a world becoming more concerned about food safety and security, traceability of how a crop was managed will become mandatory. The time series of tracking decisions with materials will become a record of traceability. Where and when a fertilizer or pesticide was applied to a field will be faithfully recorded with GPS and passed “downstream” as an embedded knowledge network for agro-management practices to anxious commodity buyers and consumers. The availability of these records among commodity handlers over the Internet will make the whole food-growing process transparent and provide a means for identifying where problems are occurring in the food distribution chain.
While growers employing GPS in tracking and traceability will not have to change their management practices, they will likely do so based on feedback from downstream players in the industry. Demands from buyers and regulators will impact production practices as will consumer market forces. New markets will open to growers who meet preset specifications for raising a crop. In the not-too-distant future, growers will be rewarded for not only having the largest yield but realizing one with the “right” practices.
Beginning with yield monitors that mapped the high and low yields of a harvested crop, GPS became the critical tool for quantifying all kinds of in-field variations in soil and plant processes which impacted agriculture. These variations, whether captured with a grid of points or geo-registered imagery, allowed for “variable-rate” applications of seeds, fertilizers, plant growth regulators, and pesticides.
The current success of variable-rate applications and other GPS-based management practices is due in large part to desktop, personal digital assistant (PDA), and online computer programs. These programs, which are part of precision agricultural services, make GPS-based decision making easier and friendlier. Growers can now access these programs directly from vendors or indirectly through consultants and distributors who serve as resellers and providers of field support. These programs and the services housing them will continue to be a crucial component for the sustainability of GPS and precision agriculture in the future.
As a final note, just like the individual in our traveling team who knew how to navigate a vehicle with GPS, the future success of GPS will not be measured by the technology but by the number of people who know how to utilize the technology.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.