The cloud isn`t just for rain anymore

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Precision agriculture has been a key enabling technology to achieve higher yields with lower cost and less environmental impact, while keeping the cost of food fairly stable

Has global agricultural productivity increased or decreased in the last 25 years? It has, in fact, more than doubled since 1985. Next to advances in seed genetics, precision agriculture has been a key enabling technology to achieve higher yields with lower cost and less environmental impact, while also limiting the cost of food so that it has remained relatively stable in fixed dollars.

Agriculture, the largest industry in the world, is an example of putting automation and innovation to work with established standards that support adoption and growth. In fact, if agriculture can do it, then so can construction and the diverse disciplines that make up the global geospatial community.

Expanding the use of precision agriculture
However, if productivity has doubled in 25 years then why is there concern about it continuing to increase and meet the needs of earth’s escalating population?

First, the regions of the world that have experienced the highest rates of productivity are exactly where agricultural land is being lost at the highest rate. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s research services, more than 2000 acres of existing or potential farmland are being lost every day in North America and Western Europe due to development. Coincidentally, these nations also have the highest utilisation of precision agriculture technology.

Second, the amount of food wasted is climbing. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme, at least 30% of all crops are wasted because of simple logistics issues. Just as Building Information Modeling (BIM) is being used to eliminate waste and create buildings and infrastructure that can be maintained more efficiently, the scope of precision agriculture has now expanded to include systems that help ensure the crop is delivered with low loss to store shelves, fuel production facilities, and the many other destinations that rely on it as the key ingredient of the food, fuel and fiber supply chain.

Often referred to as ‘farm-to-fork’ traceability, cloud-based systems within precision agriculture platforms enable the monitoring and analysis of virtually every plant from its planting, to harvest, to the dinner table. As this vast amount of data grows, so does the industry’s ability to fine-tune all aspects of the crop and distribution cycle. This not only helps ensure that demands are met but also quickly pinpoints areas of safety concern — whether they be possible contamination by salmonella or the need to quarantine specific harvests that may have been improperly treated with pesticides or other chemicals.

The third issue that needs to be looked at is that of expansion. How can the benefits of precision agriculture be advanced to countries where arable land is in abundance but inefficient farming methods are limiting the crop output such that farmers are barely able to meet their own needs? The Precision Agriculture Institute was founded in 2006 with this question and advancing the technology within the industry in mind. Most manufacturers of precision agriculture equipment, including OEMs who develop their own platforms, belong to this group which provides educational resources and outreach to farmers and governments that are new to the technology.

Looking back at the amazing contributions of precision agriculture over the many years past, one realises that the technology is yet only in its infancy. The exponential growth in technology, communication, analysis, and navigation present exciting opportunities for precision agriculture to expand its benefits very quickly and in ways that we couldn’t even imagine earlier.

Addressing agricultural challenges
Major technology companies such as Hitachi and IBM and well known agribusinesses such as Monsanto are focused upon ways to gain greater precision of the single most impactful element on growing — weather forecasting — not just for a region, but for a specific field. For example, the ‘Deep Thunder’ IBM weather analytics research programme has been adapted for use in creating ‘micro forecasts’ that offer farmers weather outlooks specifically catered to their fields up to 36 hours in advance with 90% accuracy. This system uses sensors that are in the fields along with mobile devices and cloud-enabled data services to ensure best practice timing for planting and inputs application scheduling.

The widespread reach of smartphones can also play a major role in the future of precision agriculture, especially for small farmers or in areas without robust technology resources. The Norwegian-based agrichemical company, Yara, has introduced several apps designed to improve crop nutrition. The Yara ImageIT app is designed to measure nitrogen uptake and generate a nitrogen recommendation based on photographs of the crop. The uploaded photos undergo a comprehensive pixel based image analysis of leaf colour. If the field is in an area lacking cellular coverage, the images will be batch uploaded from a cellular or Wi-Fi hotspot. It is not exact science in real time, but is a tremendous leap to take advantage of expertise when it is needed, no matter where the farm or expert is located.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are also creating a vibrant buzz in agriculture where they are forecast to provide immediate benefits. Agribusinesses and farmer service providers could use data supplied by them to create very fast reporting of improper application, forecasting of crop yields, and providing in-season crop scouting — just to list a few of the more obvious benefits. Though the concept of lower cost methods for acquiring data over large land areas is significant, today the UAS industry is facing regulatory challenges in some countries, while the value proposition continues to be sorted out in others.

Could autonomous vehicle operation happen in agriculture? It is quite possible that autonomous equipment operation will be adopted in agriculture before most other industries. Auto-steering is already a pillar of precision farming; there are added efficiencies to be gained through coordinated machine operation and leader-follower systems. All that is needed is for companies who contribute to UAS technology to apply similar remote operations for farm machinery, and one can truly farm from the office.

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