Big Data & Precision Agriculture

GreenSeeker Sensor System

There is new term creating a lot of excitement in technological and scientific circles. It is “big data.” Big data refers to the generation of enormous amounts of data due to new technologies for measurement, collection and storage. Data are accumulated in such vast quantities that they defy conventional analysis techniques. As we will see, big data offers great opportunities but also major challenges. Before discussing how big data will impact precision agriculture, it may be instructive to learn how it has impacted another field which literally redefines itself through continuous observations.

The field of astronomy during the past two decades has undergone a rapid improvement in the ability of telescopes to collect data. If we assume that all data can be defined in terms binary digits or “bits,” then we can calculate how much data are in an image, book or table. This is because we can construct bytes from bits which numerically define colors, letters and numbers. The bigger a telescope is for making observations, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. The greater the density of picture elements or pixels in the same viewing area of a telescope, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. The faster the recording of images in a telescope of the same size and pixel density, the more data are collected in the same interval of time. With each new telescope launched into space or constructed on the ground, there has been acceleration in data realization.

The improvement in telescopes along with their “big data” capabilities is best illustrated through examples. The popular, exoplanet-hunting Kepler telescope, launched by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has a density of 95 million pixels with the capability to sum imaged data over 30-minute intervals. The Kepler telescope can precisely measure the light emitted from over 100,000 stars. This periodic tracking of stars has increased the number of known exoplanets from in the tens to in the thousands. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) is an international collaboration of ground-based, radio telescopes to observe galaxies, stars and planet formation. It began generating 40 terabytes of data per day when it became fully operational this year. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a public-private partnership, has a 3-billion pixel density. It will be able to image an area of the sky that is 49 times the size of the Moon when it becomes operational in 2015. It has been estimated that there is now a doubling every year in the amount of data being collected in the field of astronomy.

The exponential growth of data requires new thinking on how to look at data. Today, it is humanly impossible to look at all but a tiny portion of astronomical data using conventional analysis. Consequently, in place of humans, computer programs conduct comparative analysis on large stores of data. Through a step-by-step procedure of calculations and/or comparisons, programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets. For example, in the case of the Kepler telescope, the tell-tale variation in light from a star reveals the presence of an orbiting exoplanet. A computer program can identify this variation with an algorithm and conduct an analysis of a star’s extended time series in the blink of an eye. While new telescopes are generating “astronomical” amounts of data, new algorithms are being written to analyze these data.

New Ways Of Thinking Needed

While agriculture is a latecomer to the big data phenomenon, it will soon follow a similar path as astronomy. Precision agriculture, with its time-dependent, geospatial data at the field scale, will be front and center in the realization of big data in agriculture. As sensors are placed on machinery, arrayed in soils and canopies and flown remotely overhead, the amount of data collected in the field will increase geometrically. As was the case in astronomy, it will be become humanly impossible to analyze data collected in an agricultural setting. And like in the field of astronomy, computer programs will be relied upon to conduct nearly all the analyses of large data sets.

Big data by its sheer volume of information offers a number of opportunities for precision agriculture. At the most rudimentary level, ingested data can be analyzed in real-time to flag critical values important for production decision-making. At a more sophisticated level, high resolution spatial maps of soil moisture can direct the efficient use of irrigation. Similarly, detailed maps of pest damage can allow for the precise targeting of controls in a field. At the most advanced level, remote-sensed data coupled with measurements made with sensors on machines or arrayed on the ground can be processed to create a dynamic, three-dimensional picture of soil, plant and environmental properties in a field. This picture would be composed of many layers of data, which singly or together can support specific management decisions.

The big data opportunities can be overshadowed by their challenges, especially in the early going. First, there are very few “data” scientists or persons who know how to create and execute the algorithms necessary for analyzing large of amounts of data. Second, there is commonly a mismatch in the scale, precision and accuracy of data coming from different sources. This mismatch can create an erroneous picture of what is actually happening in a field.

Third, big data, like all data, needs to be quality controlled before it is used in algorithms. The necessary quality control procedures can become pretty elaborate and time-consuming. The fourth and most important challenge is the interpretation of products created by algorithms processing large data sets. Interpretation of data patterns is very subjective. Every individual has their own way of looking at the world according to their beliefs, prejudices and preconceived notions of acceptable outcomes. Consequently, no two individuals will reach exactly the same decisions after interpreting big data patterns.

We can conclude that big data will increasingly become part of precision agriculture and will heavily influence our production decision-making in the not-too-distant future. We can also conclude that there will be a learning curve on the part of agricultural stakeholders making decisions based on big data.

The incorporation of big data in decisions, while challenging, may be one of the things precision agriculture needs to do to get back on a growth curve.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 comments on “Big Data & Precision Agriculture

  1. Without any doubt and in a complete agreement with the article: "programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets". Certainly a big challenge is use in presicion farming area those tools coming from the multivariate statistics field.

  2. Without any doubt and in a complete agreement with the article: "programs in the form of algorithms reveal patterns in large data sets". Certainly a big challenge is use in presicion farming area those tools coming from the multivariate statistics field.

Data Stories
DataSentera Honored With Startup Award Of 2016 By Minnesota High Tech Association
December 1, 2016
The Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) recently recognized Sentera as the 2016 Tekne Startup Award recipient. The MHTA Tekne Awards Read More
Farmers Edge Truck
DataFarmers Edge, Trotter Fertilizer Form Partnership To Enhance VRT Programs
November 29, 2016
Farmers Edge, a global leader in precision agriculture and independent data management solutions, has partnered with Trotter Fertilizer, Nebraska’s foremost Read More
BusinessFarmobile Releases Mobile Data Visualization Dashboard
November 17, 2016
Farmobile today announced an EFR Dashboard, a real-time dashboard that helps farmers visualize their field data and derive insights to Read More
Southern States
Best PracticesSouthern States: 5 Tips for Variable-Rate Seeding Success
November 15, 2016
Success comes from taking advantage of every opportunity you can. One technique used in precision farming, called variable rate seeding, Read More
Trending Articles
GVM E-Series cab
Ag Tech GlobalGlobalization And Precision Agriculture
December 7, 2016
Globalization has taken on a negative connotation in some circles in the U.S. in recent months. The lightning rod for Read More
Farmers Edge Truck
DataFarmers Edge, Trotter Fertilizer Form Partnership To Enhance VRT Programs
November 29, 2016
Farmers Edge, a global leader in precision agriculture and independent data management solutions, has partnered with Trotter Fertilizer, Nebraska’s foremost Read More
Kinze 4900 Multi-Hybrid Concept Planter
Business ManagementKinze Fights Deere, Feds To Block Release Of Trade Secrets
November 22, 2016
An antitrust lawsuit intended to block a small-scale deal between agricultural giants John Deere and Monsanto is putting an Iowa Read More
BusinessClimate Corp. Acquires European FMIS Company
November 21, 2016
Today, The Climate Corp., a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., announced the acquisition of VitalFields, a European farm management software company Read More
USDA UAV
Hort TechHigh-Tech Agriculture Continues To Reap Rewards For Farmers
November 11, 2016
Just like a smartphone helps users learn, communicate and make important decisions, smart technology — known as precision agriculture — Read More
BusinessTrimble Launches New FMIS Platform
November 7, 2016
Trimble announced today that it is consolidating three of its agriculture software products — Connected Farm, Farm Works Software and Read More
Latest News
AgBot16 Challenge
Hort TechUSDA Announces $3 Million For Agricultural Robotics Res…
December 8, 2016
The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has announced the availability of $3 million in available funding for Read More
BASF Maglis Grower Tablet
Business ManagementPrecision Farming Forecast: 4 Challenges, Opportunities…
December 7, 2016
Opportunities and challenges. They are the yin and yang of the business world. It could easily be argued that, out Read More
GVM E-Series cab
Ag Tech GlobalGlobalization And Precision Agriculture
December 7, 2016
Globalization has taken on a negative connotation in some circles in the U.S. in recent months. The lightning rod for Read More
Buhler Versatile HQ cab
BusinessThe State Of Precision Ag In 2016
December 7, 2016
There’s no denying that precision technologies and practices are more vibrant than ever. Elsewhere on this site, you will find Read More
BusinessFarmobile Details New AGCO Distribution Deal
December 6, 2016
Farmobile today announced a strategic partnership with AGCO, a worldwide manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment. The agreement will allow Read More
Hort TechSol Chip Launches Autonomous, Wireless Solar Tag for Sm…
December 6, 2016
Sol Chip, a provider of Internet of Things (IoT) systems and energy harvesting solutions, today announced the introduction of its Read More
TechnologyAgGateway Announces 2017 Board Of Directors And Leaders…
December 2, 2016
AgGateway has announced its leadership for the coming year, including the directors of its new Strategic Board and Operational Board, Read More
DataSentera Honored With Startup Award Of 2016 By Minnesota…
December 1, 2016
The Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) recently recognized Sentera as the 2016 Tekne Startup Award recipient. The MHTA Tekne Awards Read More
AGCO AgControl
TechnologyPrecision Ag Technology: Rate Control For The Times
December 1, 2016
It’s not surprising that the need for more economical, effective application is driving the demand for the latest rate controllers Read More
Farmers Edge Truck
DataFarmers Edge, Trotter Fertilizer Form Partnership To En…
November 29, 2016
Farmers Edge, a global leader in precision agriculture and independent data management solutions, has partnered with Trotter Fertilizer, Nebraska’s foremost Read More
Fall corn
BusinessInsecticide of the Future? Robotic Tanks With Lasers to…
November 22, 2016
*Article Notes: This monthly column takes some crazy sounding ideas and applies them to the field of Ag Tech. The Read More
Topcon X30 Console in cab
Sensors/IoTIoT The Focus Of New Topcon Partnership
November 22, 2016
Topcon Agriculture and SDF plan to enter into a non-exclusive long-term partnership agreement. This latest arrangement of Topcon with a Read More
Kinze 4900 Multi-Hybrid Concept Planter
Business ManagementKinze Fights Deere, Feds To Block Release Of Trade Secr…
November 22, 2016
An antitrust lawsuit intended to block a small-scale deal between agricultural giants John Deere and Monsanto is putting an Iowa Read More
BusinessClimate Corp. Acquires European FMIS Company
November 21, 2016
Today, The Climate Corp., a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., announced the acquisition of VitalFields, a European farm management software company Read More
BusinessFarmobile Releases Mobile Data Visualization Dashboard
November 17, 2016
Farmobile today announced an EFR Dashboard, a real-time dashboard that helps farmers visualize their field data and derive insights to Read More
Southern States
Best PracticesSouthern States: 5 Tips for Variable-Rate Seeding Succe…
November 15, 2016
Success comes from taking advantage of every opportunity you can. One technique used in precision farming, called variable rate seeding, Read More
USDA UAV
Hort TechHigh-Tech Agriculture Continues To Reap Rewards For Far…
November 11, 2016
Just like a smartphone helps users learn, communicate and make important decisions, smart technology — known as precision agriculture — Read More
THRIVE
BusinessCall For Ag Tech Startups: Apply To THRIVE’s Open…
November 10, 2016
THRIVE is looking for high growth ag tech companies with an in-market solution that are positioned to scale. The top 50 Read More