Precision Agriculture and Big Data Gaining Traction Fast

Example of how farmers can use iPads to track data around his operation
Technology is going mobile, allowing growers to access information in the field from tablets or phones.
Photo courtesy of Highland Precision Ag

This year, the iPhone will celebrate its 10th birthday. In only a decade, smartphones have found their way into just about everyone’s pocket and have fundamentally changed the world. Looking back 10 years ago, one wonders how anybody ever got by without these little computers that fit in the palm of their hand.

The data-driven age that will unfold over the next decade will take society to even greater heights of automation and intuitive technology aimed at making life easier and more productive. Challenges and questions of ethics will arise as new innovations occur — as they always do — but the technology train is barreling forward and the pace will only quicken as computing power increases and the Internet of things spreads.

Technology has spread through agriculture as well, most notably in the form of precision agriculture practices. For big-acre row crops, precision ag is much like the iPhone — just a normal part of daily farming. Variable rate applications, auto-steer, field mapping, and yield monitoring have become standard operating procedure for many of the commodity crop growers.

Catching on Quickly

While specialty crop growers have generally lagged behind in the adoption of precision agriculture practices, the segment is catching up fast. In the past few years, Florida growers have been adding various facets of the technology to their operations. Auto-steer is common and grid mapping is catching on, allowing more variable rate applications to be applied.

“Precision ag is kind of nebulous term that doesn’t really describe the industry that well anymore,” says Robert Saik, Founder of the Agri-Trend Group (now part of Trimble Navigation) and an agricultural futurist who tracks farm technology. “There is so much wrapped up in that term now and it can mean so many different things to different people.”

Growers also are getting a grasp of how this concept of “big data” can be used to improve the productivity and sustainability of farms.

“The biggest decision a farmer will have to make in the next three years or sooner is the data platform he or she chooses to run their operation,” Saik says.

Regardless what platforms growers choose, Saik says agriculture is embarking on exciting times as growers learn to harness the power of data being collected by fertility grid sampling, sensors, and imagery captured from unmanned aerial systems (UAS, aka drones), planes, or satellites.

“First, we need a system to capture all the data, then we need a way to make sense of it all,” Saik says. “That is where algorithms come in to assimilate all the information. That’s what many of the technology companies are focusing on now. He who has the best algorithm will win.”

He adds algorithms will be able to analyze factors like weather, soil moisture, plant growth stage, and fertility as crops develop. Also, as data is collected over time, it will allow “machine learning,” meaning a computer platform will recognize problems developing that it has observed before.

“The future vision of these systems surround anomaly detection,” Saik says. “I don’t need to be told everything is good. I need to be told where problems exist. There is far too much information for a human to possibly deal with. That is where algorithms and machine learning will come in.”

Saik says the technological revolution approaching agriculture is being driven by computing power.

“Computers are pulling us along,” he says. “By 2023 or sooner, a $1,000 laptop will be have the computing power of 10 to the 16th power. That is the same computing speed as the human brain.”

Saik says these capabilities will unlock the ability to “variable rate everything” based on a crop’s needs throughout its development. Variable rate planting, fertilizer, weed control, fungicides, and irrigation will become common. Robotics will follow to address concerns in the labor area.

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