Sustainable America Blog

What Is Precision Agriculture?

a helicoptor-style drone used for precision agriculture

The future of farming may include helicoptor-style drones, like this one from Precision Drone LLC, that survey crop health.

With the global demand for calories expected to grow by almost 50% over the next 40 years, the question on many minds is how to produce enough food to feed the world population. Though crop yields in the United States have grown in the last decade, they must continue to grow — and we don’t have much productive farmland left to expand into. So farmers must find ways to produce more on established farmland with less, and some farms are starting to do just that through precision agriculture.

What Is Precision Agriculture?
Precision agriculture seeks to use new technologies to increase crop yields and profitability while lowering the levels of traditional inputs needed to grow crops (land, water, fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides). In other words, farmers utilizing precision agriculture are using less to grow more. GPS devices on tractors, for instance, allow farmers to plant crops in more efficient patterns and proceed from point A to point B with more precision, saving time and fuel. Fields can be leveled by lasers, which means water can be applied more efficiently and with less farm effluent running off into local streams and rivers. The result can be a boon for farmers and holds great potential for making agriculture more sustainable and increasing food availability.

Big Data Down on the Farm
One developing area of precision agriculture involves monitoring and analyzing data related to the weather, soil, pest or hydration conditions of a specific farm, field or even plant to make exact and predictive farming decisions. Collecting and transmitting this data in meaningful ways has been a barrier, but innovators are working to change that.

The data that farming equipment generates can be expensive to extract due to its proprietary nature, for instance. An open-source project called ISOBlue, dreamed-up by Purdue University students, hopes to unleash the vast amounts of data that modern farm equipment can generate by transmitting it wirelessly via bluetooth to the cellphones of farmers, agronomists, entrepreneurs and researchers. According to the ISOBlue website, “Since these systems on modern tractors generally communicate via a standard ISOBUS architecture, our goal is to free the data by forwarding it straight off the bus wirelessly to devices capable of doing useful things with it.” ISOBlue would make the extraction of data much more affordable, according to Jesse Vollmar, the CEO of Farmlogs, an agriculture technology company that sponsored the project. Right now, any interested farmer can get involved with the open-source project and participate. ISOBlue plans to have an off-the-shelf, low-cost device available in 2014.

From Dusters to Drones
Though drones are not currently allowed for most agricultural applications, the Federal Aviation Administration is considering regulations that would allow their use, and if approved they are anticipated to be a huge game-changer in agriculture. Crop dusters are expensive and have certain obvious risks, flying just 10 feet above the ground at speeds of about 150 miles per hour. Drones, on the other hand, are a fraction of the cost of a modern plane and involve no risk to a pilot. If they crash, it is likely to happen over an open field and not over a populated area.

Aside from crop dusting, drones will be able to take continuous shots of crops so farmers can monitor plant health without sending scouts out into the fields. This would allow for more controlled, precise fungicide and insecticide application. Japan has already started using drones to spray their rice fields. By 2010, drones sprayed 30 percent of Japanese rice fields with pesticides. “The Japanese farm hectares sprayed by manned helicopters dropped from 1,328 in 1995 to 57 in 2011, as unmanned helicopter spray rose to 1,000 hectares that year,” according to Wired. The consensus seems to be that American farming will adopt drones rapidly as well if they are approved for widespread use.

Farm Bots
Another promising technology for precision agriculture is robotics. From a small Rowbot designed to apply fertilizer precisely between rows of corn to a lettuce bot that pulls weeds, nimble robots are being developed to do the work traditionally done by hand or large machinery more efficiently. For instance, checking for pest problems in fields the conventional way can be a sticky situation, literally, as bug traps have to be manually monitored, cleaned and reset. In October, we profiled Spensa Technologies, a company that’s using robotics to streamline this cumbersome process. Spensa Technologies‘s Z-Trap and an online tool called MyTraps.com are automated tools that allow farmers to track pests from their cellphones in real-time, allowing them to reduce the amount of pesticides sprayed on crops, which saves the farm money and labor. The company won $50,000 in the Village Capital VentureWell startup accelerator program, which Sustainable America helped to sponsor, to help develop the Z-Trap and more robotic agriculture tracking tools.

It remains to be seen if technologies like these can ease the race to feed a growing population, but a recent study conducted by Lux Research has shown that large (5,000 acre) farms using precision agriculture strategies can slash input costs $24.50 per acre on average and increase output gains by $42 per acre. Lux Research predicts that within 10 years, “precision agriculture will be an industry of fully developed platforms that cover the entire cultivation process.” If so, the result could be a food system with less waste, using fewer chemicals, functioning at lower cost. This can absolutely improve food availability, one of Sustainable America’s primary goals.

Our goal is to increase food availability 50% by 2035 to be exact. By supporting precision agriculture projects like the Z-Traps and others, we plan to make agriculture more sustainable and feed more Americans.

Nicole Rogers Sustainable America Contributor

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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