Ask any person who works in the precision agriculture field about the industry’s top technologies and they are likely to tell you the same thing, basically — these pieces of hardware/software and system approaches are designed to increase the level of accuracy and traceability available to your average grower.
“It used to be very hard to take all the information gathered through different precision agriculture methods and integrate it all,” says Mike Wilson, Webster Valley Service Center area marketing coordinator for Wabash Valley Service Co., Browns, IL. “But as new products and technologies come into the market, that’s no longer the case anymore. If I had one thing to say about the entire precision agriculture industry today, it’s that people are finally starting to connect all the dots.”
Here we take a closer look at the top five technology trends driving today’s marketplace and what these will mean for simplifying precision agriculture going forward.
1) Automatic Steering
If you were comparing the world of precision agriculture to the world-at-large, automatic steering would be the rock star of the group. From humble beginnings, automatic steering systems have enjoyed widespread adoption ever since. To appreciate this fact, consider that at the start of the 2000s, the percentage of automatic steering systems being used by growers and ag retailers was in the low single-digit range, at best. Today, 10 years later, they are among the most common precision agriculture systems in the market. In fact, according to the State of Precision report published by sister magazine CropLife® this past June, automatic steering is now utilized by 71% of ag retailers — an increase of approximately 20% during the past two years.
“Automatic steering is continuing to grow,” says Sharon Gauquie, Rawson sales specialist for Trimble. “It offers users so many different levels of benefits and convenience.”
Harold Reetz, Jr., founder of Reetz Agronomics, Monticello, IL, agrees with this assessment. “If you are looking for the top driving technology for precision agriculture today, it would have to be automatic steering,” says Reetz. “This is an easy-to-use, easy-to-see results technology.”
This is perhaps the main reason automatic steering seems to have enjoyed such universally popularity within agriculture, adds Reetz. Growers and ag retailers that use these systems in their equipment can see immediate payoff in terms of reduced operator fatigue, allowing them to work more hours and employ these products virtually around the clock if necessary.
Then there’s the cost savings aspect of automatic steering when it comes to crop inputs. “When using automatic steering systems, users typically see an average of 10% savings on the respective input being applied, whether it’s seed, fertilizer or crop protection products, due to reduced overlap,” says Reetz.
Last but not least, he adds, automatic steering users like the fact that these systems are not tied down to just a single piece of equipment. In most cases, automatic steering systems can be installed in a grower’s tractor for early season work and quickly be switched to a self-propelled sprayer for application work within a few hours. Furthermore, precision ag users expect these systems to become more affordable in the future. According to CropLife State of Precision survey, 51% of respondents believe this will happen over the next two to three years.
2) Integrated Sensor/Controller Systems
According to Trimble’s Gauquie, a growing desire among precision ag users the past few years has been the need for fewer pieces of equipment that do more things. “Everyone is looking for a one-stop shop, with one controller that is doing a lot of things, but simply and accurately,” she says. Fifty-six percent of State of Precision respondents say more compatible/integrated data management products will begin to emerge during the next few years.
Reetz agrees that the time for this becoming a reality in precision agriculture is arriving. “Sensor technology has been greatly improved over the past couple of years,” he says. “Perhaps most importantly, there has been enough critical research to develop the needed algorithms to make these systems work for important decisions on-the-go in such applications as variable-rate nitrogen or herbicide application.”
Coupled with these moves in sensor technology are advances in controllers. “Controller systems are also improved, and systems are now available for several applications to handle individual rows or boom section controls,” says Reetz.
According to many precision ag industry experts, these upgrades are already having an impact on the seed planter marketplace. “Given that the average price per bag of seed these days is more than $300, there has been a want among growers to find a way to have better planter control so they can turn row planting on and off accurately — just like custom applicators have the ability to turn nozzles on and off using boom section control technology,” says Jason Hunt, regional sales manager for Topcon. “Some of the new sensor and controller technologies being introduced can accomplish this.”
Jeremy Wilson, technology specialist for Crop IMS, agrees. “The number one precision ag technology I have customers getting excited about right now is planter control with new sensor and controller changes,” says Wilson. “These are bringing the ability for users to control one, two or three row combinations. There is less overlap and fewer skips as a result. This, in turn, is opening the door for systems such as OmniSTAR and RTK (real-time kinematic) for better accuracy so we as an industry can get down to that higher level of accuracy, perhaps to the point where we can get down to one-row sections.”
3) Remote Sensing
If there’s one area of precision agriculture that has a long way in the past year or so, Reetz believes it is remote sensing. “This technology has greatly improved and the necessary databases to integrate imagery are reaching a higher level of availability,” he says. “Moreover, the software tools are becoming available to integrate these data and imagery into decision tools.”
According to other precision agriculture experts, this should open the door for improved accuracy in all variable-rate application work. “With the technology that’s becoming available now, users can build layers of data to control fertilizer and seed applications without much effort,” says Crop IMS’ Wilson.
All this adds up to an even brighter future for remote sensing moving forward, says Reetz. “Given what we’ve seen so far this past year, we should see expanded opportunities in remote sensing applications coming soon,” he says.
4) Database Integration
According to Rick Green, precision agronomics systems manager for MFA, Inc., Columbia, MO, many of the technology advances in precision ag the past few years have focused on the equipment side of the business. Consequently, this means much less attention has been paid to the informational side. “In 2004-05, everyone introduced new systems for the big equipment, such as automatic steering,” says Green. “The data processing/integration part of precision agriculture was largely left wanting. But that is starting to change.”
Until now, he says, precision agriculture users have been able to collect massive amounts of data using the various pieces of hardware and software available to the marketplace. But taking the data and turning it into field practices that generate better profits and higher yield has proven much more difficult. “There are systems that offer some snips of information, but dissecting it all has been a real challenge,” says Green.
Now, however, the more widespread use of wireless communication offers possibilities for putting all this data together in a single integrated database. “This is just what everyone in precision agriculture is looking for,” he adds.
Reetz agrees that database integration is improving. However, he believes this sector has some distance to go to completely satisfy users. “It’s getting better, but there is much more to do in this area,” he says. “I see this as the key limitation to be overcome in growing precision farming technology adoption. There is a rapidly expanding collection of data in many places. But much is awaiting real analysis and interpretation and utilization. Coordination, compatibility and integration are real needs.”
5) Social Networking/Smart Phones/On-Farm Wireless Networking
If you were asked to name a technology that has spread to virtually every corner of the world the past few years, you most likely would say a single word — Internet. This has fundamentally changed the way the world communicates, speeding it up and adding whole new layers of interaction such as social networking.
Now, says Reetz, this technology revolution is coming to precision agriculture. “As more growers and their advisers see the potential for these tools, there are some exciting possibilities on the horizon,” he says. “Real uses as a business tool are starting to come on the scene. This will increase the number of on-farm users.”
MFA’s Green also foresees big things ahead for Internet-based technologies coupled with traditional and new precision ag methods. “Everyone knows the Internet is an easy way for getting data from one place to another,” he says. “I’m not sure popular social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook will have any applications for growers, but some forms of this kind of communication just might.”
The use of smart phones will help move this along, he adds. Not too long ago, cell phones just made phone calls. Today, smart phones such as the iPhone and Blackberry can perform a host of functions, including instantaneous communication through the Internet or using their stand-alone networks. “Just think about how few people had smart phones in the world just five years ago compared with today,” says Wabash Valley’s Wilson. “Can you even imagine what kind of mobile technology wonder everyone might be using five years from now?”