Agriculture Finds Gold In Government’s Technology Innovations

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Dr. Raj Khosla, Colorado State University

Government-sponsored research has contributed critical foundational technology for many industries, including agriculture. Highlighting some of the most profound achievements: global positioning systems (GPS); mapping with geographic imaging systems (GIS); and sensors and robotics was the overarching theme of “Deconstructing Precision Agriculture,” an educational program and reception held in Washington, DC on March 4.

Deconstruting Precision Agriculture
Some 75 legislative professionals gathered for the Deconstructing Precision Agriculture event on March 4.

Hosted in the Agriculture Committee Room at the Longworth House Office Building, the event drew more than 75 Beltway-based legislative professionals, who engaged with experts and innovators from each area of focus, as well as three growers who helped connect the dots from each technological area to its application in real field conditions.

The event was conceptualized by the Task Force on American Innovation, an alliance of America’s leading companies, research universities, and scientific societies. It advocates for sustained research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Dr. Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University and a world-renowned expert in precision technology, moderated a series of presentations that revealed the strong connection between government research initiatives and advanced agriculture practices. “Precision agriculture is not rocket science, but we employ the fruits of rocket science to make agriculture more productive,” Dr. Khosla noted in his opening remarks.

GPS, arguably the most important government-originated technological development in use in agriculture, was built for military use through the 1970s and 1980s and was opened up for commercial use in 1995. Today, GPS is the backbone for improved efficiency, production and stewardship on the farm. GPS powers automatic steering technology that reduces farmer fatigue. It makes seed planting placement more precise. It improves fertilizer and crop protection product application accuracy. And, it provides a geographic reference point for every field activity a farmer performs.

Farmer Rod Weimer of Fagerberg Produce in Eaton, CO, uses high accuracy GPS to pinpoint onion plantings in proximity to rows of drip tape irrigation to ensure the water applied to the field is used as efficiently as possible.

“With drip irrigation, each emitter releases 0.16 gallons of water an hour to the root zone, so it takes less water to irrigate,” says Weimer. “The biological effect of it is huge, there is no water running off your fields, you are not contaminating downstream waters … it is just really, really efficient.” The accuracy of today’s GPS systems push accuracy to less than an inch, making these achievements possible.

Also presenting was Virginia farmer James Hula, who farms more than 4,000 acres and is the current world record holder for corn yield on an acre. The collection of data through a wide range of sources, including sensors, probes, GPS and remote imagery is helping him make better field decisions.

“Sometimes we find through precision data that we end up using more inputs on some areas because we are able to increase production, and then we manage the less productive areas by applying less,” says Hula. “You know, when we were growing up on the farm my granddad told us where the best parts of the field were. Now with precision agriculture we quantify that as to why areas are better, and can we make some of the low-producing areas of the field more profitable. It’s important that we have as much information as we can today.”

Del Unger, whose family farms 6,500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in southwest Indiana, is using a wide range of technologies to help them make field decisions on a more proactive basis. This includes critical nitrogen applications, which he will do multiple times during the season based on in-season data, including tissue testing plants.

“That’s really the next big thing for us is getting data on a real time basis,” says Unger, “through improved sensor technology and the employment of UAS to collect and capture data and allow more proactive decisions to be made. Being able to take that information to the field and make best recommendations will be critical for us.”

A variety of experts and researchers in technology and precision agriculture were on hand to provide stories and additional background to the event. Drs. Bill Raun and Marvin Stone discussed how early passive sensor technology was further developed at Oklahoma State University into active sensors, capable of creating their own light and of capturing information about plant health. The Greenseeker plant health sensor, now manufactured by Trimble, is the commercial manifestation of this research.

Carl Williams, chief of the Quantum Measurement Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), shared how the evolution of time-capturing accuracy, and the government sponsored development of the atomic clock, has made modern global positioning a reality. “Accuracy of within one billionth of a second manifest in a GPS system gets you within a foot,” explained Williams. “You have to get down to accuracy within 5o trillionths of a second to get to the sub-inch accuracy that is being discussed by the farmers here today.”

Dr. Alex Thomasson, professor at Texas A & M University, shared his work and thoughts on remote sensing and imagery – viewing and analyzing fields and plants using an imaging device at a distance from the subject, such as from a satellite or a manned or unmanned aircraft. Much can be gleaned from these images, including a variety of plant and soil condition indicators as well as pest outbreaks.

Thomasson also shared his enthusiasm over the possibilities of UAS technology beyond sensing and into robotics. “What if an unmanned aircraft came equipped with robotic arms that would allow it to fly close to a plant and actually manipulate it to provide a more thorough assessment of the plant?” he said. “ I know it sounds like science fiction, but it will be possible.”

Also presenting at the meeting were Mark Harrington, vice president, Trimble; Dave Gebhardt, director of data and technology, Land O’Lakes/WinField Solutions, and Shashi Shekhar, Professor, University of Minnesota.

The event was developed by The Task Force on American Innovation and hosted by the Congressional Soils Caucus. These companies and organizations provided additional support:

The Task Force on American Innovation is an alliance of America’s leading companies, research universities, and scientific societies. It advocates for sustained research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

For more information on the Task Force on American Innovation, visit www.innovationtaskforce.org.

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