How Remote Sensing Powers Precision Agriculture

How Remote Sensing Powers Precision Agriculture

Growers today can take advantage of the latest in technology to help them maintain an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

That means securing the benefits of the information revolution to deliver advances in crop yield and farm efficiency from precision growing techniques enabled by data – lots of data.

Those benefits, of course, are only going to be as good as the underlying data provided by sensors, the devices that obtain information about an area — a field — often from a distance in what’s called remote sensing.

This information is collected, compiled and turned into actionable intelligence through the use of advanced data analytics. Think of the navigation app on a smartphone. At heart, it is a data analytics tool that runs through all of the possible routes to between your current location and your destination, estimating how long it will take to take one road compared to the next. Yet these apps are only as good as the traffic data that let the system know one road is closed and another is clogged with traffic. The job of sensors is to provide that data.

Origins of Remote Sensing

Remote sensing may be a relatively new thing to agriculture, but the concept has been around for quite some time. Back in the mid-19th century, man took to the skies in hot air balloons with bulky, primitive cameras they used to survey the land below and create highly accurate maps. World War I commanders soon came to rely on photographs taken from biplanes and blimps to stay informed about the enemy’s battlefield movements and to plan artillery strikes. These commanders understood that, if you can’t see it, you can’t manage it.

Over the ensuing decades, technology advanced rapidly, but this principle remained the same. Cameras became far less cumbersome, and aircraft became far more capable. The “bird’s eye view” provided by these systems became exponentially more effective in managing tasks as diverse as construction, mining, and archeology. In the 1960s, surveying was boosted into orbit as satellites gave us, for the first time, a look at the entire planet at a single glance, which provided insight into managing big picture issues from global temperatures to land use patterns.

The Potential for Remote Sensing in Agriculture

Modern sensing instruments have advanced far beyond simple photographic film. Today’s devices measure light, radiation, and heat by capturing different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Ongoing electronics miniaturization and the popularity of commercial drones have made this equipment increasingly affordable, but the usefulness of these devices in agriculture took the greatest leap with the advent of GIS (geographical information systems), the technology that allows the organization and analysis of data and patterns related to specific locations on a map — such as a field. This made it far easier for combined systems to deliver information — actionable intelligence — related to a grower’s specific needs.

Remote sensing devices take measurements throughout a field over time so that the grower can analyze conditions based on the data and take action that will have a positive influence on the harvest outcome. For instance, sensors can serve as an early warning system allowing a grower to intervene, early on, to counter disease before it has had a chance to spread widely. They can also perform a simple plant count, evaluate plant health, estimate yield, assess crop loss, manage irrigation, detect weeds, identify crop stress and map a field.

A variety of sensors is available to perform one or more of these tasks. Which one will a grower need? It all depends. A small-scale vegetable farmer will have different needs than a commercial grain farmer managing multiple fields.