The Compatibility Question

Todd Peterson has spent a lot of time working with precision products and practices at Pioneer Hi-Bred, and has occasionally dropped me a note when something we publish hits a chord. I wrote in my most recent blog from the Commodity Classic tradeshow that the cost of inputs across the board will challenge growers and their advisers as they plan for 2008. Todd wrote, “I agree; farmers are struggling to re-evaluate their management in this new era of commodity and input prices.”

Best use of precision agriculture technology is certainly a part of that, and Todd asked me if I’d be interested in running a column he recently put together for Pioneer’s magazine, Growing Point. Especially recently, I’ve observed greater collaboration and partnering among precision manufacturers. But I agree with Todd that precision agriculture technology must move more rapidly down the path of compatibility to help growers manage the farm more effectively.

Here is Todd’s opinion piece on the matter:

Why Can’t My Precision Farming Tools Talk To Each Other?
Precision farming technology has been around since the early 1990s, yet we’re still dealing with some of the same frustrations we had back then. It should be easier to collect and share data among different brands and models of yield-mapping systems and field-operation controllers. I believe growers buying and using precision farming technology should demand more from providers of these tools.

We often buy electronics with more functionality than we want or need. Your cell phone or television video recorder probably has features you don’t use simply because it takes too much effort to figure them out.

Precision farming hardware and software has developed along the same lines: High-tech power users continue to demand more functions while average customers are frustrated by the increased complexity of each new system.

First, precision farming technology should be easier to use. Most farmers want a transportable system with a simple user interface that will map yields, control and record field operations, and integrate with GPS-assisted guidance or steering. This could and should be accomplished using standard off-the shelf components and operation systems, and a simple user interface across devices.

Singing the same tune
Apple Inc. has sold more than 120 million iPod devices, not because they’re better or cheaper or have more features than other digital content players (they don’t). The iPods sell because of great user-friendly interfaces on both the device and the controlling software. Yield mapping systems should be as simple.

Precision farming devices also should be more portable and functional across a range of applications. Most growers want to use the controller for roughly the same list of basic functions: logging tillage, planting, input applications and harvest data.

They should be able to connect to different tractors, applicators and combines with industry-standard electronic connectors for power and GPS signals — or they should be capable of using Bluetooth- type interfaces for wireless connectivity within whatever cab it resides.

Each cell phone and television video recorder has a different menu structure and user manual, even among models within the same brand. Despite differences in technology and function, you can make a phone call to another brand of cell phone or watch a TV show on a different system than the one used to record it. This is because providers of these devices use and follow accepted industry standards.

Demand compatibility
We need a compatible format for capturing, storing and transferring a spatial record of a field operation.

For example, it should be easy to collect GPS as-planted data on where and when each field is planted, transfer the spatial record of where the herbicide-tolerant hybrids and varieties were planted, and export this information to the spray controller to prevent misapplication of herbicides.

Data compatibility will become even more important as we move toward more real-time wireless data transfer in which each tractor and combine become a node on the Internet.

I encourage growers to ask manufacturers of precision farming devices, not when will the new system will be able to do more, but when will it be smarter, be simpler to operate and be compatible with industry data exchange standards. Let’s resolve to make technology simple and easier to use.

As published in the January 2008 issue of the Pioneer GrowingPoint magazine

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