Sensor Tech: Joining The Ranks

Sensor technology today is omnipresent – they are everywhere and sense everything from the oil level on your tractor to the ionic water-holding capacity of soil – and predictions are they will only continue to gain momentum as the industry strives towards the future halcyon days of fully automated farming.

One area that makes sense for sensor deployment today is in irrigation and water-use monitoring, according to Chris van der Loo, director of marketing, Trimble Water Solutions.

“There are places like Nebraska where they are regulating the amount of water that growers can use per season – it used to be they could use as much as they want – now its highly regulated, and some are having to grow the same crop with less than half the water they had before (regulation),” says van der Loo. “For Trimble, variable rate irrigation (VRI) is really the next step in precision agriculture and we project the Corn Belt will be huge with VRI in the future.”

Enter Trimble’s Soil Information System (SIS) package for Connected Farm, which combined with Irrigation IQ allows for variable rate irrigation as well as a host of other water monitoring capabilities. SIS is soil mapping technology that uses advanced sensors to measure soil characteristics, and then integrates that data as well into the Connected Farm software suite, giving users the ability to make data-enabled decisions on irrigation.

“This is way more information than the traditional USDA soil maps that anyone can access, it’s basically a platform aimed around getting spatially accurate data from 4 feet below the soil for an entire field,” says van der Loo. “What we are looking for is the water holding capacity of the soil, which is very important for VRI, as well as actual soil characteristics such as root zone depth, soil texture, compaction characteristics and nutrient levels.”

Beyond the Western states, Trimble naturally feels there are others that can benefit from more precise application of water resources.

“We’re trying to increase awareness around overwatering,” says van der Loo. “Our research on the negative response that we get on yield when we overwater is truly eye-opening, so the message we are trying to get out there is ‘optimize water to optimize yield.’”

SIS also ties into Trimble’s Farm Works software, as well as the Scout mobile app.

Sensor Systems Go

Topcon Precision Agriculture’s Mike Gomes, widely recognized as someone locked in on the industry pulse, sees sensor technology evolving along the same lines as some of other ag technologies, embracing more of an all-encompassing “systems approach”.

“Today there are various sensors around a particular solution — variable-rate, section control and boom height control, those types of things,” says the recently-promoted vice president of business development. “Really the next step for the industry is when growers are able to use those individual technologies in coordination, and the feedback from those sensors becomes more important because it helps them to measure what they want to manage.”

Feedback, or data, from on-the-go imaging sensors (NDVI, multi-spectral, etc.) that quantify plant “greenness” and growth is also valuable, he says.

“Now you start to have information on quality and you start understanding not just where you want to put different things, but what you believe you’re producing,” says Gomes. “The sensors provide the feedback so growers understand what the state of their crop is at any given time, and where they should spend the money, or maybe where they can save money.

“Feedback from sensors, in conjunction with the ability to visualize that data to understand how it meets your prospective objectives on the farm, is a big deal.”

Sensor technology also has the potential to vastly alter the planting process, one day allowing for real-time variable rate planting of two separate seed varieties, depending on soil type/other factors, as well as the ability to set up a field for optimal planting conditions (A-B lines, machine turns, etc.), says Gomes.

A Bright Future

Known more recently as the stomping grounds of Johnny Football and the original 12th Man crowd, Texas A&M University is gaining traction in academic circles as a go-to source for research on sensor tech in precision agriculture, according to a recent press release issued by the school.

A&M AgriLife research agriculture engineer Dr. Alex Thomasson intends to one day develop sensor/computer hardware and software that can determine individual plant status real time, as a driverless tractor automatically transverses the field. It is something Thomasson is already working on with his research team and, not all that far from realization, he claims.

Visions of future automated grandeur aside, Thomasson’s current work focuses on developing a system to aid plant breeders in sorting through multitudes of plants for the selection of new varieties of sorghum. While narrowly focused initially, the research could have application in large scale row crop production, as Thomasson and his team are quantifying three important traits in sorghum that also play a large role in corn and soybean production: yield, drought tolerance and nitrogen-use efficiency.

“(Looking at these three characteristics) will enable the measurement of plants along their full growth cycle, allowing the traits such as speed and form of growth, flowering and final biomass yield/quality to be investigated,” he said.

The team is currently exploring five different sensor types in its research:

  • A down-looking six-band, multi-spectral camera.
  • A down-looking thermal imaging camera.
  • A light curtain.
  • A side-looking camera.
  • Ultrasonic sensors.

According to Thomasson, the six-band, multi-spectral camera assesses nitrogen content, growth status and plant size. The thermal imaging camera measures plant canopy temperature and water content. The light curtain measures plant height, projected plant profile and plant size, the side-looking camera gives a plant profile view, and the ultrasonic sensor gives another reading on plant height.

Additionally, other indicators of plant performance can be derived from a combination of measurements from the group of sensors, Thomasson says.

“Combining a plant’s projected leaf area with its height can be a good sign of plant biomass,” he says. “And combining the down-looking and side-looking images of the plant provides for the 3-D reconstruction of the plants.”

One of the main paybacks found thus far, according to Thomasson, is that readings on a very large number of plants can be collected weekly, or even daily, at a high level of accuracy, a process that would not ordinarily be practical for the often over-extended agronomist. And while certainly intriguing, Thomasson isn’t reinventing the wheel with his five sensor project.

“There has been some sensor-based phenotyping research done in the past on plants, but a turnkey
system doesn’t exist yet,” he says “My goal is always to try to get to a commercialization phase, and I think this has potential.

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