Precision Agriculture today is being driven by three key factors: saving time; reducing cost; and promoting environmental stewardship. They are the building blocks for the rise in the precision technology.
The latest precision agriculture technology delivers significant time-saving opportunities, whether it’s a family-owned farm or a large corporate agriculture business. It’s important because typically, everyone on the family farm is stretched for time. So saving time on larger-scale jobs frees growers, their families and staff up for other “must-do” jobs, and added free time improves quality of life.
For large agribusinesses, time savings translates into higher productivity and increased yields. And because of the scale of these operations, the return on investment can be very rapid.
The latest precision agriculture technology offers significant opportunities for cost savings across a whole range of farming activities, including reduced requirements for seed and inputs, improved task accuracy and flexibility, better water management, higher productivity and reduced fuel usage.
For example, on very large farms — such as in the American Midwest, Canada, Australia, Brazil or South Africa, where fields can extend for miles — imagine being just six inches off on every mile: Consider the amount of seed wasted on unprepared land or tilled land wasted if it’s not seeded, or the potential to burn the crop if you put double the fertilizer on one strip, not to mention the cost of the inputs.
And unfortunately, if you double seed or put on the wrong amount of fertilizer or pesticide, the consequences can be very expensive — and not readily apparent until it’s much too late.
Water management is another area where there will be increasing opportunities for cost savings, especially as water becomes a scarcer and increasingly expensive commodity in many regions of the world. Precision land leveling technology allows a farmer to accurately level or slope the land and control the amount of water arriving at any particular point.
This increases the efficiency of irrigation with far more accurate absorption rates. Precision land forming may also improve drainage and eliminate low wet areas.
Precision agriculture technology is playing a significant role in reducing the environmental impacts of farming. On the one hand it may reduce pollution and runoff through lower chemical use, minimal overspray, better targeting because inputs are only used where they are needed.
And example is on-the-go crop canopy sensing, a technology which varies input based on readings taken on the crop in the field by sensing equipment. This potentially offers further opportunities for saving money. In the past, too many growers have seen profits go “blowing in the wind” through wasted fertilizer, pesticide or water when applying to areas where it is not needed.
Improving GPS accuracy is another stewardship benefit. Running guidance systems at below two-centimeter accuracy, particularly using the latest electric steering technology, the grower travels on exactly the same track each time. This translates into significant fuel saving while maintaining a single track over many miles of plowing, seeding or spraying. And the land benefits because less soil is compacted by the equipment wheels.
There are a few key developments, mostly still in development, that are truly going to change the face of farming around the world.
1 User interface improvements. A big factor for growers will be massive improvements in ease of use of technological innovations. While all manufacturers develop and promote products designed to achieve essentially the same thing, every manufacturer uses different operator interfaces. With some systems it is essential to read the manual to figure out how to use it; with others, the system is so intuitive that ease-of-use is apparent, so that operation is possible without having to ever look at a manual.
2 Telematics. Another big change coming is in the field of telematics — which allows users to remotely monitor critical operating conditions and status of machines — whether in a field five miles away, or on the other side of the world. Telematics brings together advanced GPS or GNSS technology, wireless communication and Web-based equipment management software to give growers constant access to key data about all their equipment: operating parameters, location, fuel consumption, speed and direction, potential maintenance issues, and more.
Very soon, growers virtually anywhere in the world will have access to total farm management systems — from field preparation to harvest — with all specified data monitored around-the-clock.
The addition of telematics to the farm operation gives growers the ability to manage their business from inside their home, wirelessly via computer from a piece of farm equipment, or from a location anywhere in the world. All pertinent and specified data available to run their businesses will be literally at their fingertips.
3 Autonomous operation. Autonomous operation combines such technologies as GNSS-based precision guidance, electric steering systems, infrared sensors, gyros and inertial sensors, automated metering and precise monitoring technology. Often more popularly (but not entirely correctly) known as remote control, this is something we will definitely see in agriculture. It’s already being used in the mining industry where — as with agriculture — users have access to large-scale sites in which they can fairly easily exclude people from locations where autonomous equipment is operating.
Having said that, autonomous equipment is required to include an array of safety systems to eliminate the risk of accidents if people do stray into a work area. This is an area in which the global agricultural industry will lead this particular business innovation revolution. The safety issues are much easier to manage and the recognizable benefits and financial returns are apparent.
Bringing It Together
In the future, growers will be increasingly reliant on accurate, dependable statistical information, which will then feed into integrated precision agriculture systems to deliver outstanding productivity and crop yields. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll have a grower sitting in his farmhouse, looking at his computer and saying to his wife, “Marge, we are going to do the planting today.”
Then he will press the “planting” button and his tractor (or tractors) will come out of the shed, head off to the fields and begin planting the right seed in the right location, in the right quantities for optimum growth, all with minimal human intervention. And if there’s a problem or a machine breakdown, the grower will be instantly alerted.
And as those crops grow and mature, we’ll have sprayers and watering equipment driving along in the farm field. It will see that one plant is not as green or thriving as well as the next, so it will apply a shot of water or nutrient as required.
That vision is still a little way into the future — but it is clearly the direction precision agriculture technology is going.