After all, it was only around years ago that farming in the US transitioned from animal power to combustion engines. Over the past 20 years the global positioning system GPS , electronic sensors and other new tools have moved farming even further into a technological wonderland. The ultimate purpose of all this high-tech gadgetry is optimization, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint.
So farming machines with GPS receivers are able to recognize their position within a farm field and adjust operation to maximize productivity or efficiency at that location. Take the example of soil fertility. The farmer uses a GPS receiver to locate preselected field positions to collect soil samples.
Then a lab analyzes the samples, and creates a fertility map in a geographic information system. Using the map, a farmer can then prescribe the amount of fertilizer for each field location that was sampled.
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Variable-rate technology VRT fertilizer applicators dispense just exactly the amount required across the field. Precision agriculture requires three things to be successful. It needs site-specific information, which the soil-fertility map satisfies.
It requires the ability to understand and make decisions based on that site-specific information. Decision-making is often aided by computer models that mathematically and statistically analyze relationships between variables like soil fertility and the yield of the crop. Finally, the farmer must have the physical tools to apply the management decisions. In the example, the GPS-enabled VRT fertilizer applicator serves this purpose by automatically adjusting its rate as appropriate for each field position.
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Other examples of precision agriculture involve varying the rate of planting seeds in the field according to soil type and using sensors to identify the presence of weeds, diseases, or insects so that pesticides can be applied only where needed.
Site-specific information goes far beyond maps of soil conditions and yield to include even satellite pictures that can indicate crop health across the field. Such remotely sensed images are also commonly collected from aircraft.
Now unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs, or drones can collect highly detailed images of crop and field characteristics.
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These images, whether analyzed visually or by computer, show differences in the amount of reflected light that can then be related to plant health or soil type, for example. Clear crop-health differences in images — diseased areas appear much darker in this case — have been used to delineate the presence of cotton root rot, a devastating and persistent soilborne fungal disease. Once disease extent is identified in a field, future treatments can be applied only where the disease exists.
Advantages of UAVs include relatively low cost per flight and high image detail, but the legal framework for their use in agriculture remains under development.
Automatic guidance, whereby a GPS-based system steers the tractor in a much more precise pattern than the driver is capable of is a tremendous success story. Safety concerns currently limit completely driverless capability to smaller machines.
Global positioning gives hyperlocal info
Fully autonomous or robotic field machines have begun to be employed in small-scale high profit-margin agriculture such as wine grapes, nursery plants and some fruits and vegetables. Autonomous machines can replace people performing tedious tasks, such as hand-harvesting vegetables. They use sensor technologies, including machine vision that can detect things like location and size of stalks and leaves to inform their mechanical processes.
Japan is a trend leader in this area. Typically, agriculture is performed on smaller fields and plots there, and the country is an innovator in robotics.
The development of flying robots gives rise to the possibility that most field-crop scouting currently done by humans could be replaced by UAVs with machine vision and hand-like grippers. Many scouting tasks, such as for insect pests, require someone to walk to distant locations in a field, grasp plant leaves on representative plants and turn them over to see the presence or absence of insects.
Researchers are developing technologies to enable such flying robots to do this without human involvement. High-throughput plant phenotyping HTPP is an up-and-coming precision agriculture technology at the intersection of genetics, sensors and robotics.
HTPP employs multiple sensors to measure important physical characteristics of plants, such as height; leaf number, size, shape, angle, color, wilting; stalk thickness; number of fruiting positions. Scientists can compare these measurements to already-known genetic markers for a particular plant variety.
close look to sugarcane planter
The sensor combinations can very quickly measure phenotypic traits on thousands of plants on a regular basis, enabling breeders and geneticists to decide which varieties to include or exclude in further testing, tremendously speeding up further research to improve crops. But the pace of high-tech innovations in agriculture is only increasing.
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All with nary a human being in sight. Lest we forget?
Masterclass guest lecture: Richard Hughes — York, York. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom. A conceptual variable-rate fertilization system that would use sensors to determine how much fertilizer to apply in real-time. The cab of a contemporary tractor is a lot more complicated than it would have been even 20 years ago.
Field positions predefined on remotely sensed image that can be located in the field via GPS for sampling. Info, analysis, tools Precision agriculture requires three things to be successful.
Examples of remote sensing in agriculture, top to bottom: vegetation density, water deficit and crop stress. Ultrasonic and other sensors can detect individual-plant conditions at close range. Just another day on the future farm? Most popular on The Conversation Could invisible aliens really exist among us?