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Advantages of precision agriculture technology

precision farming technology
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All eyes are on the world of agriculture as global awareness about the linkages between industrial farming and climate change increases, and an ever-growing population raises serious concerns about international food security. The United Nations reports a predicted population increase to close to 10 billion by 2050, most of which is expected to occur in developing nations, placing an already inequitable food system under severe pressure.

Investors are looking toward the AgTech sector, which is buzzing with innovative technologies, for solutions to transform land-use practices, bolster food security with highly productive farming techniques, and mitigate the adverse effects of industrial farming. Precision agriculture technology is at the heart of modern agricultural technologies, but it has become a frequently used and somewhat ambiguous term, trending online and amongst professionals in the field. Let’s break it down to the core principles and associated technologies to better understand what precision farming is and how it fits into a changing food system.

Precision farming is the exact application of specific inputs at variable rates to optimize economic efficiency and reduce wastage. Traditionally, farmers would use the same inputs such as irrigation, fertilizer, or pesticides across an entire field in a blanket application process, not accounting for variations in land type and soil biogeochemistry. Precision farming makes use of geospatial data to analyze the fluctuations of soil nutrients, water availability, slope, sun exposure, and other such variable features of land parcels and addresses them only as needed.

This core practice of precision ag is called variable rate application (VRA) and is what makes this agricultural movement stand out as a more advanced and responsible way to farm. Traditional commercial farming simply did not have access to the detailed data we do today, so it presumed monotonous patterns in crops and fields that led to a large-scale wastage of resources that is no longer necessary with current data availability. Variable-rate application is very much at the center of precision agriculture, but many different technologies go into making it work or that enhance other aspects of farm work to be more streamlined and efficient.

What Are the Main Advantages of Precision agriculture technology?

Precision farming and VRA applications benefit all stakeholders in agricultural operations in just about every way, but mainly through the provision of more metrics for agricultural monitoring, the improved ability to make informed and efficient decisions, the creation of highly accessible farm records, the ability to better protect crops and investments, streamlined irrigation management, and superior land stewardship and sustainable practices. Let’s dive into each advantage and highlight the key benefits they offer ag professionals:

Advanced metrics for agricultural monitoring

The most notable benefit of systems that employ precision agriculture technologies or practices is the vast amount of specific metrics they collect and use to monitor their operations. Quantitative data about everything under the sun is collected, stored, analyzed, and used to keep a close eye on every aspect of a farm, no matter the size or location. Metrics are constantly available for review or comparison, and multi-layer analysis can provide insights into complex relationships between soil chemistry and crop nutrition, soil brightness and yield productivity, water inputs, and drainage inefficiencies – just to name a few. In a field of work that has historically been associated with instability and risk, precision ag has transformed farming into a carefully mapped constellation of data points and those who make their livelihood from it into the astronomers who study and understand it.

Agricultural monitoring

Improved decision-making efficiency

Data-based decision-making means that previously complicated cost-benefit analyses and guesswork are taken out of the equation and clear statistical calculations are utilized to provide highly precise results in just a fraction of the time. IoT networks, API integrations, and smart devices all work together to create farming systems that are responsive to real-time updates about all aspects of an operation so that decisions can be made almost instantaneously and any data needed to make those decisions is available at the click of a button. This is especially true for software platforms that compile all the relevant data into one user-friendly package and provide analytics that can make the smartest decision for you based on your data inputs and desired results.

Accessibility to farm records

The improved access to detailed records and data can provide agribusinesses and agronomists with the accountability for what works and what doesn’t on a new level, all of which is added to a constantly growing resource base from which smart and informed decisions can be made. This also reduces the stress associated with agricultural professions, where many factors that were previously deemed uncontrollable or random- like topographic inconsistencies or weather patterns- can now be predicted and accounted for with a much higher level of accuracy, leaving more time to manage other aspects of a business.

Crop and livelihood protection

Contingency planning, risk evaluation, and crop protection can all be factored into software that provides constant monitoring of changes and threats to land productivity, allowing farmers to be one step ahead at all times and reduce the risks associated with their profession. It also opens up opportunities for agricultural laborers and employees to higher-paying job opportunities in tech and software as farm labor becomes increasingly redundant and positions in programming and equipment maintenance increase in demand. Pests, diseases, and extreme weather events can all be monitored and diagnosed early on to prevent devastation and provide enough time for the appropriate response or counter-attack to be put in place.

Superior irrigation management

precision farming

Presently, estimates suggest that over 70% of globally available freshwater is used by the agricultural sector and high volumes are wasted through inefficient irrigation systems.2 Many major growing regions are already experiencing water scarcity, and WWF statistics suggest two-thirds of the world’s population will experience water shortages by 2025.3 This highlights how essential efficient irrigation management is in modern agriculture, and variable rate irrigation (VRI) can help conserve water resources enormously by removing irrigation dead zones and putting every drop of water towards productive use. VRI makes use of data from geospatial data analysis, weather monitoring, and soil moisture sensors to only provide water in exact quantities to crops that need it, and adapt applications depending on factors like slope and run-off that affect how water is absorbed into soil.

Sustainability

Precision agriculture is beneficial not only for agribusinesses but also for the surrounding environment, as optimizing input efficiency reduces the volume of unnecessary pollutants released into the soil, water, and air, and data analytics allows for constant monitoring of soil health. Sustainability is integral in Precision agriculture technology, as an increasing global population will place more pressure on already degraded soil systems, so practices that encourage biodiversity and conservation of local ecosystems are essential. The more nuanced understanding of a piece of land that comes with this type of agriculture creates an appreciation for diversity and the micro-differences that exist across a landscape. Catering to those differences through VRA means that biodiversity can be more effectively preserved, and it provides agricultural professionals with a systems lens through which to view their operation and appreciate the complex biological, chemical, and physical linkages that occur.

The relationship between climate change and land use is a positive feedback cycle in which both are constantly affecting the state of the other. Traditional agriculture has played a significant role in bringing the climate to the breaking point it is currently at through a combination of fossil fuel dependency and the eradication of carbon sinks, like healthy soils and forests, to plant monocultures. The livelihoods of agricultural professionals will be some of the first to be most affected by changing climate patterns and extreme weather events, but the sustainable nature of precision agriculture allows for the close monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration so that further negative effects are minimized, and active climate change mitigation strategies can be woven into land management. Precision agriculture combined with regenerative ag and soil building practices has the potential to become one of the most significant tools that we can use as a global society to reduce global warming.

Important Technologies for Precision Ag

The smooth operation of precision farming is dependent on technologies that have the capabilities to efficiently collect data, automate systems, create advanced communication networks across the board, and apply inputs at variable rates. As with everything in the 21st century, technology is becoming an essential component in agriculture, and the Agtech sector is seeing constant new additions and inventions that can be used to further contribute to highly accurate and streamlined practices. Here are ten of the most valuable technologies being utilized in this field, and how they fulfill a specific need or supply a vital service to ag professionals.

Smart devices

Smart devices like phones, tablets, and watches are already staples in the daily lives of most but are now essential tools for farmers, agronomists, and agribusinesses to efficiently manage their operations. Immediate access to information, instant communication with other parties, calendars and scheduling capabilities, and the use of high-definition cameras to quickly identify and diagnose issues as they arise are just some of the most notable benefits that smart devices can offer professionals in the agricultural sector. Additionally, having access to devices with app compatibility is a prerequisite to using many other technologies on this list and allows individuals to plug into a world of largely free knowledge.

There is also a world of creative apps available to ag professionals that contribute to efficient practices in other ways, like those that assist in the identification or diagnosis of different pest species or diseases or offer specific platforms for farmers to communicate locally. Farms looking to transition to precision agriculture need to have smart devices in order to lay the groundwork for everything else, like accessibility to data and instantaneous communication are essential in running more efficient operations.

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT goes hand in hand with smart devices by connecting all relevant information into one secure web of information that is accessible anywhere, anytime. Detailed metrics collected from other devices on this list such as soil or livestock sensors, equipment out in the field, and weather forecasts can all be triangulated to instantly respond to environmental threats or quickly coordinate tasks. The real highlight of IoT-connected devices is the capability that they provide farmworkers or other relevant professionals to receive real-time updates wherever they are, and open pathways of communication even over large, thousand-acre operations.

GPS and Satellite Data

GPS technology laid the groundwork for precision agriculture from the very beginning, by opening up the world of geospatial data and providing farmers with detailed maps that have completely changed the way food is grown. There are now many ways to access and manipulate different types of datasets acquired through remote sensing, but the raw technology of satellites remains a cornerstone of Precision agriculture technology. We are also seeing the exponential improvement of satellite imagery every day, with increasingly refined images and more missions that can tell us highly detailed information about land system interactions and changes over time.

Topography field profile

The topographic dimensions of a piece of land have a significant effect on crop yields as they have a significant effect on the drainage of water and nutrients through a landscape and soil erosion patterns. Variable-rate applications of inputs like irrigation and fertilizer need to be adjusted according to the topographic profile of a farm, where the elevation, slope, and aspect are all accounted for to ensure maximum yield potential with minimum resource wastage. 3D mapping tools that generate advanced models of topography profiles are proving essential for informing VRA and showing large-scale linkages to watersheds and surface drainage patterns. These can be used with base layers like LIDAR and cover maps like pH distribution of organic matter to provide a multi-layer analysis of the soil profile.

Software analytics platforms

Platforms that provide software as a service are a key component in the accessibility of precision agriculture to those working in agriculture and looking to employ VRA in seeding, fertilizing, and irrigating their fields. These platforms, like GeoPard, provide all the complex data analytics and processing needed to translate raw data into clear solutions and allow users to isolate different variables like topography, soil nutrients, soil water moisture, soil brightness, and many more to generate specific VRA maps.

With API integrations and IoT compatibility, these VRA maps can be uploaded to machine fleets and simplify every step of the VRA process from data acquisition to input application. These platforms act as a hub for data where everything collected from machines, sensors, and satellites can be collated in one secure location and compared in a multi-layer analysis.

Robotics

Robotics

Robotics are great additions to the streamlining mission of precise farming, as by their very nature they can be programmed to work on a strict schedule and without the same limitations as manual workers. Robotic devices can work all hours of the day in most weather conditions, have precision steering, and are usually operated remotely from smart devices. Since there is a global trend of younger generations leaving agricultural regions to pursue higher-paying jobs in cities, robotics play an essential role in performing the increasing amount of farm work needed to feed growing urban populations. Robotics are now a staple in many precision ag operations and are able to carry out all activities from seeding to weeding to harvesting. The current direction of robotics is moving towards fleets of smaller robots that are lighter, faster, and easier to control than large tractor-like machines, especially since they can now be so easily managed when hooked up to IoT networks.

Drones

Drones

Drones are proving to be very important tools when it comes to the application and spraying of inputs from above. Using GPS configurations drones can quickly fly and apply specific fertilizers variably across large land parcels, without the adverse effects of soil compaction associated with large, heavy tractors. In addition, tractor tracks and paths become redundant with the use of drones and open up more productive land space for crops to grow unimpeded. The information and imagery collected by drones also contribute to an overall larger database of information and can be used to quickly identify pest or disease issues before they spread. The mobility of these little machines means they can be flown high up to apply inputs or collect data over a wide area or zoomed down to a specific crop patch to analyze insect eggs or crop damage.

Wireless sensors

Wireless sensors

To complement the immense database of satellite imagery available, wireless sensors offer on-ground means to collect information about soil nutrition, plant available moisture, livestock movement, and basically anything they are attached to or planted in. This data provides an even more nuanced understanding of the precise needs of all components of an agricultural operation, and livestock sensors can even measure the body temperature and hydration levels of individual animals to ensure population health and limit the spread of infectious diseases that are common in commercial animal agriculture. Soil and moisture sensors can provide live updates about chemical cycles like water and nitrogen, which are constantly in flux due to the nature of the compounds, to ensure that the timing of inputs can be as precise as possible. Soil measurement and analysis systems, like those offered by SoilOptix and TopSoil Mapper, collect an unparalleled volume of data points about soil systems by measuring radiation and can be used to create detailed VRA maps. Sensors are also available to calculate and keep track of yield during harvesting, and on an even more advanced level, certain sensors can calculate grain protein whilst measuring yield data.

Weather modeling services

Weather data modeling services have been around for many decades now, but as with every technology on this list, they are constantly improving and offering more exact predictions for micro-climates. Precise weather modeling services are increasingly needed due to the extreme weather patterns of climate change, which directly impact the livelihoods of farmers. Even with Precision agriculture technology, crop yields remain highly vulnerable to sudden weather events like droughts, floods, storms, and cold snaps, and advanced modeling technologies are vital for the appropriate contingency plans to be put in place.

Weather modelling services

API integration and collaboration

A technology designed to facilitate the use of other technologies, API integrations are proving themselves to be essential in the seamless and successful implementation of all the other technologies associated with precision agriculture. Since the AgTech sector is so diverse and far-reaching in the solutions offered by different companies, collaboration through API integration is the best way for data to be exchanged and utilized most efficiently by consumers. Precision ag is all about access to fast, easy, and accurate data to inform practices, and API integrations are what bind this process together.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML)

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are the future of many key parts of society, and although it is far from being implemented in most farming operations, the benefits of this type of technology from a precision agriculture perspective are already evident. Primarily, AI takes informed data-based decision-making to the next level by creating fully autonomous and self-regulating ML systems that are programmed for precision. A human error exists in the equation with machine learning and AI integrations, and the impacts this will have on food production are monumental.

Precision Agriculture

The Future of Precision agriculture technology: Onwards and Upwards

So what’s next? Based on the explosive innovation that has occurred in farming over just the past decade, and the predicted increase in food demands over the next several decades, we can be sure that technology will only become more and more integrated into our farming systems. Already on the horizon are completely automated systems that are controlled by artificial intelligence, that would be hyper-responsive to minute system changes and able to maintain tighter profit margins than have ever been seen in agriculture.

Agronomists, agribusinesses and other agricultural professionals asking themselves whether they should switch to precision agriculture can be certain of the advantages this system presents to all stakeholders involved, and how it will contribute to the overall longevity of their operation. The affordability of the technologies mentioned in this article is the main barrier to implementation, but the world of finance is starting to hedge its bets in favor of sustainable agriculture as the key to creating resilient and food secure systems, and investments in AgTech are reflecting this. As long as accessibility and sustainability are kept at the forefront of progress in this field, a self-sufficient food system that can feed upwards of 10 billion people is in sight.

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