How does precision agriculture work?

It’s something we’ve never talked about at Gardenprue and I think it’s about time. Precision agriculture is a branch of agriculture that is on everyone’s lips. Sensors, satellites, real-time data, monitoring, big data, remote sensing, drones, GPS, GIS software, multispectral images, soil mapping, agronomic indices … a whole world of technology at the service of a sector, which is possibly one of the slowest when implementing these systems. And the big question is: Is it worth it? Time will tell. For now let’s make a brief introduction.

PRECISION COMES (AT LAST) TO AGRICULTURE

All productive sectors have been at the forefront of new technologies for years. The automotive sector, the food industry, medicine, make use of the famous ICT (information and communication technology) to get better performance, improve their products, save costs, reduce emissions, save lives (medicine) … Without However, agriculture, since the leap to self-propelled agricultural machinery by combustion engine, had not experienced a technological revolution until the 21st century with precision agriculture.

WHAT IS PRECISION AGRICULTURE?

An extensive definition that I can think of about precision agriculture would be: Agriculture that makes use of ICT for crop management, obtaining a large number of agronomic variables that allow a more precise analysis of the crop situation in order to optimize the maximum resources, save costs, dose with great precision the applications of inputs (water, fertilizers, phytosanitary …), get the most out of it and contribute to the sustainability of agricultural systems.

Perhaps there are shorter, more precise and more or less successful, but this is how we understand it in this blog. In short: it is putting information technology at the service of agriculture to improve it, full stop.

WHERE IS THE BARRIER BETWEEN “CONVENTIONAL” AGRICULTURE AND SO-CALLED PRECISION AGRICULTURE? 

It is not very difficult to make this distinction. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, one of the technological revolutions of the 20th century in this sector was self-propelled machinery by the combustion engine. From the earliest tractor to today’s most avant-garde harvesting machines, there have not been many more changes – understand changes as something of global draft; We are talking about revolution, not evolution.

Could we say that precision agriculture is having a weather station on a crop, or using the information from existing ones to analyze weather patterns in our plot and act accordingly? In a certain way yes, only in a certain way, and although this has been going on for a long time, it was never called precision agriculture. The term has made more sense when a large number of layers of information have been added, obtained from various sources. In addition, making use of these layers, it is achieved that “tilling” is done accordingly to that information. I explain:

If through a satellite image, taking some agronomic index from its multispectral camera, we get to know the fertilization needs of a crop, not only at a global level, but at a much more specific level, we can apply a variable fertilizer dose according to these data and save a looooong money on something as expensive as fertilizer. This would be a first phase of precision agriculture: Data collection , analysis and interpretation  .

NDVI index of a culture

It is evident that these results in the form of a map of fertilization needs must be interpreted by a software that our dosing machine carries in order to know at all times, how much fertilizer to apply according to that map. All this guided by GPS. There already, we are getting the squaring of the circle and that is already serious precision agriculture. This phase would be a second phase: Decision-making and execution based on the first phase.

There are many more examples but today is not the day to enter them. We want to give a brief brushstroke of all this so that, in the not too distant future, we get more involved in the matter. Below we will discuss some of the techniques that are applied. In later articles we will delve into each of them in depth.

WHAT TECHNOLOGIES ARE THERE?

GPS-GUIDED AUTONOMOUS DRIVING MACHINERY

In the previous example, it is one of the technologies applied to the service of agriculture, machinery that is capable of covering a plot according to a plan pre-established by the farmer. The driver, once on the plot, only has to monitor the telemetry of the process so that everything goes according to the established plan. And yes, I am talking about telemetry, as in Formula 1, agriculture also has that today.

SATELLITE AND DRONE IMAGES

Satellite and drone images are images captured by somewhat special cameras that take aerial photographs of crops in spectra not visible to the human eye, such as infrared. With the data obtained from these cameras we can know, for example, the water stress or the vigor of a crop and from there make the pertinent decisions.

There are public initiative such as Landsat (NASA), the current Sentinel (ESA) and private ones (Quickbird, Deimos, Wordlview …). Currently the highest resolution ones are private and the acquisition of images is expensive. In any case, the European Space Agency (ESA) this year has launched 2 multispectral satellites of high resolution, with a lot of application in precision agriculture, being able to reach a resolution of 10m / pixel that is more than enough to analyze certain crops cereals for example. Acquisition of Sentinel images is completely free.

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A curiosity outside of precision agriculture

We believe that we have a few satellites flying around the globe (METEOSAT, GPS, Google Earth and few others, right?) Here is a link to a website so you can see the amount of satellites and rocket debris and garbage space orbiting around the globe that humanity is accumulating. Is awesome!

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The world of the drone is waking up and is gaining strength. They are very useful for a lot of disciplines and agriculture does not fall short. Drones with multispectral, thermal, LiDAR cameras … that allow us a precision that for now is impossible for a satellite to give us. In addition, we do not have the effect of the clouds nor do we have to make as many corrections as in the satellite photo (due to the distance and the interference of the atmosphere in the image). At the same resolution they are cheaper than a private satellite and we always ensure the highest image quality. The latest drones are capable of covering more than a hundred hectares in a single flight .

SENSORISATION ON THE PLOT

They are actually meteorological stations (somewhat less precise than those used for climatology) but cheaper and more specific according to our needs. Sensors for ambient humidity, ambient temperature, humidity and temperature at different levels of soil depth, rainfall, wind direction and speed, solar radiation, foliar wetting, dendrometers … an endless number of parameters that can be measured and stored in memories that can be They are used to study crop states and their relationship with crop agronomic variables, pests, etc. This type of information is very useful to make predictions of the appearance of pests, predictions of phenological states … do you remember the article on the thermal integral ? it has a lot to do with it.

SOIL MAPPING

Another of the layers of information that we can get through specific machinery. This device walks around our plot and tells us a large number of soil parameters. The analysis of agricultural soil in the laboratory is expensive and it is also data obtained from a specific sampling at different points of the plot. But a floor is much more complex and changing than it seems and we can have a lot of difference from 20 meters away. With these soil maps, we have continuous information of the entire plot with parameters such as pH , electrical conductivity, texture , main macronutrients (NPK).

Soil probe. Photo by: AgriExpo

BIG DATA

Cloud computing, Gigabyte analytics and even Terabytes of data. All these data that we collect from the different sensors, images, field notebooks. All, absolutely all the information is useful, and especially if the quantity is large, since more and less complex statistical algorithms are capable of drawing behavior patterns that help us make correct decisions regarding: timing and application dose of fertilizers and phytosanitary products, harvest predictions, frost prediction, irrigation needs in real time and even automatic irrigation activation based on all these analyzes… a whole world.

IS IT A PANACEA AS THEY ARE SELLING IT TO US?

Well, like everything else, it has its application on many levels. Each type of technology (soil mapping, drones, sensors …) gives different layers of information that can be more or less useful depending on our objective, size and type of crop and optimization needs . It is a new agriculture much more technified and of course it will bring improvements, savings to the farmer and a global benefit that is a more sustainable agriculture . This agriculture is designed for medium and large surfaces, where the optimization of resources has a more than fundamental role.

CAN WE APPLY PRECISION AGRICULTURE TO OUR ORCHARD OR GARDEN?

AHA! As we know that many of our readers have small self-consumption gardens, this is a great question that has an ambiguous answer. The first is NO. We are not going to fly a drone through our garden, nor do we do a soil mapping of a plot of a few hundred square meters.

The other answer is YES! Of course we can slightly sensorize a garden or an orchard and that could be to introduce a little precision in the management of our crops or ornamental plants. We give you a small example:

Irrigation with sprinklers in the garden and drip in the garden, governed by an irrigation programmer that carries a humidity probe or rain sensor and will only water days after it has rained or when the soil humidity falls below a limit. There you have precision agriculture in your little garden!

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