Standardizing Precision Agriculture
The introduction of trains in the U.S. in the early 1800s brought to light the perils of not having standards when building an infrastructure. One immediate problem was the lack of standard gauge on the rails. Each railroad owner chose a rail gauge for the stretch of track in their local geography. In many cases, the selected gauge was deliberately different so that a local railroad owner could control the flow of commerce. Shippers would have to remove cargo from one train onto another when encountering a different gauge of track. This lack of standard gauge in the mid-19th century resulted in growers, in some areas, paying more to transport produce to market than to grow it in the field.
Another problem that arose as the railroad system became national was the tracking of time. In the mid-19th century, every community across the country could choose a local standard for time. Travelers passing from one community to another would see clocks jumping forward and backwards in hours as their train passed through the different local time zones. The lack of standard time zones resulted in confusion in the movement of goods along with costly inefficiencies in delivery. By the start of the 20th century, trains were safe and easy to use due to standard rail gauge and time zones, and a commerce commission that regulated practices.
Precision agriculture has reached a point in its evolution where it could benefit from standards. As increasing numbers of growers implement precision ag hardware and software solutions into their management practices, the lack of standards hinders their ability to take advantage of innovations. Furthermore, the lack of standards stifles competition and prevents the creation of a viable infrastructure of interoperable technologies. Upon making a first purchase of hardware or software, a grower may feel locked in to that precision agriculture technology either due to the inability to incorporate other offerings or simply because of economics. Consequently, if something better comes along, the grower may be forced to start over again with a new investment in time and money. Without the ability to make easy and cost-effective changes, the grower ultimately misses out on new solutions that could reduce operational costs or add value to production.
Reasons For Standards
The implementation of standards in precision agriculture would facilitate growers in making upgrades in technologies, ensure interoperability of components in a recognized architecture and foster a healthy competition within the industry. A number of issues must be addressed for the successful implementation of standards. The first is “terminology.” The precision agriculture industry needs to use a common set of terms when describing and supporting new technologies. While some terms, such as global positioning system (GPS) or geographic information system (GIS), are commonly used throughout the industry, many are unique to an individual vendor or geographic region. For example, in the visualization of field boundaries, one finds a wide range of terms such as background imagery, map or display, reference imagery or map, landscape map and navigation map.
A second issue is formats and protocols. Information technologies are a significant part of precision agriculture. Accordingly, large amounts of data and information are passed to and from field equipment, computers, and users. In order for data and information to seamlessly move among hardware, there must be content formats and communication protocols. For example, data stored as binary files may be incompatible in format with CSV or XML files. In the case of communication, hardware ports may support USB devices but not Ethernet for the transfer of information.
A third issue is incompatible equipment or software. Incompatibility of equipment and software is particularly frustrating among users in the precision agriculture community. Be it yield monitors or guidance systems in the case of hardware, or variable rate application maps or as-applied data in the case of software, every vendor seems to have a unique solution. While design differences are expected among venders, these differences should be interconvertible with each other, especially in terms of the transfer of data and information.
Even More Issues
A fourth issue is performance measures. Objective measures need to be identified for judging the performance of equipment and software. These measures can be as simple as a list of commonly-defined features to describe functionality or sophisticated as a series of industry-approved tests for quantifying performance. It is important that all performance measures be unbiased, logical, relevant, reasonable, and easy to implement.
The fifth and last issue is training and education. Any grower or other stakeholder in the precision agriculture industry should have access to training and educational materials on the implementation and use of a new technology. Formal knowledge of a new technology will ensure its proper integration into an existing operation and provide an understanding of its strengths and limitations with current practices.
The call for standards in precision agriculture has been echoed in publications and professional journals. It has been championed by institutes, associations and other trade organizations. Recently, a number of hardware and software companies have voluntarily met to consider standards.
Precision agriculture has reached a point in its maturity where it must get on track and implement standards for the good of the grower and the industry at large.