A feature on the 15 most significant innovations in precision agriculture seemingly would be best served through rigorous, scientific information gathering and iron-clad statistical analysis. This feature contains none of that.
Instead, we asked the ultimate variable — PEOPLE — for opinions and insight from their personal point of view on what they see as the top-ranking precision technologies. The result was a diverse and interesting look at what products are viewed as most innovative by agronomists, growers, and consultants.
Well, maybe a little too diverse. Since summarizing the commentary down to 15 key innovations proved pretty unwieldy, we condensed the consensus responses from individuals and conducted an electronic survey to try to put the list in some level of priority. Thankfully, from this exercise we gained some clarity, and we are proud to share the list with you in addition to a little context to put the list in perspective.
Enjoy! And with us celebrate the rapid progress of technology in agriculture.
15. Electrical Conductivity
It sounds like science fiction — send electrical pulses into the earth and generate a soil profile upon which you can build an agronomic program. But for thousands of growers, EC was and is a key measuring stick for doing just that. Veris, which launched the EC machine in 1997, continues to sell the technology today along with several other manufacturers.
14. Handheld Computers
Introduction of the Compaq iPAQ attracted many growers and agronomists to buy and bring computing out to the field to help with scouting and data logging. Batteries were short lived and the units were fragile, but it revealed the power and potential of portable computing.
13. Remote Imagery
Satellite and aerial field imagery has always had a small but loyal following, especially in specialty crop and cotton regions. Companies are at work on satellite systems and airplane-based imagery to try to overcome the limitations created by weather and cloud cover, and image delivery continues to improve.
12. Data Cards/Mobile Data
While wireless technology is threatening to make data cards obsolete over the next three to five years, everyone mentioned that the ability to take information from one unit to another via a data storage card has made an enormous impact on productivity and accuracy.
The ISO 11783 standard that’s promising every tractor and application rig will be “plug and play” still has some distance to go, but folks see its potential and put it among the top innovations in precision agriculture technology — hopefully, it will move up the list for our 20th anniversary for the betterment of agriculture.
10. Lightbar Guidance
Remember the video game “Pong?” Every new product category must have that early entry, and the lightbar was that first entrée for growers and retailers into guidance products.
9. The PC
The personal computer is another technology not invented for ag, but as one expert put it, “without the PC nothing would have happened.”
8. On-The-Go Sensors
On-the-go sensor technology got its start in the early 1990s at Oklahoma State University, and after passing through a few hands landed in California in 1998 with a group now known as NTech Industries. With the right algorithm, this technology has been able to identify and spray herbicides on weeds, or recognize stress in crops and make appropriate applications of products. Several precision experts noted that this technology will be one to watch in the years ahead.
7. Controller Technology
Several individuals we talked to felt it was important to recognize the big leaps forward that controller technology has made over the years. “Rate controllers — which vary the application to match the exact gallons per acre rather than the traditional method of a pump putting out gallons per minute (forcing the driver to go a specified speed to obtain the proper application rate) has been a big development,” wrote one grower. “It saves lots of dollars, makes applications more exact, and makes us better environmental stewards.”
6. Automatic Boom Control
Here’s another technology that came out of nowhere just a few years ago and is becoming an indispensable component of an application rig. Less product used, less overspray to protect the environment, and more accurate … what’s not to like?
5. GIS Software
Geographic Information Systems tie all our data together and provide the colorful maps that cause us to beam with pride or recoil in horror, revealing the fruits of a solid agronomic plan or the consequences of a bad one.
4. Yield Monitor
The yield monitor is (or at least it should be) the ultimate scorecard at the end of the season for corn and soybean growers. Commercialized in the mid-1990s by Al Myers thanks to tireless work and research in his garage, he and his company Ag Leader made it possible to tell us in hard numbers how the field performed. Later, when tied to GPS, the whole thing became a data layer that could be compared with other field-specific data to help evaluate total field performance. Incredible!
3. Computer-Driven Variable-Rate Application
The most used, analyzed, lauded, and maligned technology all at the same time, VRA was the Holy Grail for the early pioneers of computerized ag electronics in the 1980s. Profitability has been as variable to VRA aficionados as fertilizer itself, but most users consider the technology a “best management practice” with benefits beyond merely profit (e.g., environmental stewardship).
2. Automatic Steering
This technology was a relative oddity back in 2000 when growers trying out Trimble’s system started spreading the word about its benefits. But boy, was it expensive! Four years later, the price point was blown up by less accurate, but less expensive, products taking advantage of the Wide Area Augmentation System. Adoption grew steadily as the technology got better and less expensive, and as users saw tremendous returns on investment. The recent Precision Adoption Survey of ag retailers by CropLife magazine put adoption of automatic steering at better than 50% in 2009, so it’s No. 2 ranking is no surprise to us.
1. The Global Positioning System
Technically, this is not an agriculture-based invention of course, having been born of the U.S. military necessity and later shared with the rest of the world. But you could argue quite successfully that GPS is the foundation of the most beneficial technological breakthrough in precision agriculture. GPS provides the positioning that serves as a base for all data, and it drives the guidance products that allow us to stay on rows and move through the field predictably and accurately.