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Precision Farming: Applying Software to Soils, Sustainably

Precision farming is a new sustainable way to produce high yields at scale without harming the environment

Updated on December 17, 2021

10 mins read

More than 10,000 years ago, humans began practicing agriculture. We spent roughly the first 5,000 of those years domesticating local plants and animals. We’ve spent the last 50 pursuing aggressive transformations in the agricultural sector — replacing manual labor with advanced machinery and hunch-based planting schedules with precision farming software.

Today, for example, there are over one million scientific articles with details on tomato growth factors and favorable growing conditions. But growing a ripe fruit on the first try is still hard.

I once planted some tomato seeds in a pot. After months of tending, obsessive watering, and plenty of fidgeting, my crop suddenly fell victim to some unknown disease and dried up before bearing any fruit.

My personal agricultural skills are nowhere close to those of today’s professional farmers. Yet this attempt is a nice illustration of the perils of growing food. Our society has advanced tremendously in terms of technology, but are we doing enough to improve one of the oldest and most important vocations?

Precision farming technologies have been rapidly developing over the past ten years. Yet only a fraction of pilots make it to land plots. What is feasible today and why should agricultural leaders double-down on tech adoption?

What is precision farming?

Precision farming (or precision agriculture) is an umbrella term for a collection of farming management practices and technological solutions aimed at measuring, observing, and optimizing inter- and intra-field crop variability.

In other words, precision farming in agriculture is a data-driven approach to improving the survival and fertility of the food we grow and cherish. We face the same problems as our ancestors — unforeseen weather changes, progressive soil degradation, and an army of critters eager to devour our crops.

What’s different is that modern farmers don’t perform rituals to please the benevolent gods. Instead, they rely on precision farming technology to do the “magic” for them — predict crop yields, suggest optimal irrigation schedules, and improve planting patterns.

Precision agriculture software includes a combination of technologies and solutions:

  • GIS-based tools for collecting, visualizing, and analyzing land data
  • Drone piloting solutions for inspection, data collection, and farming
  • IoT devices and other sensors to collect data points from fields
  • Remote control systems for farming equipment
  • Farm management modules powered by big data analytics
  • Predictive analytics units for advanced forecasts
  • VAR- and GPS-enabled solutions for semi-autonomous equipment

That’s a lot of gizmos for something that only required a spade and some seeds, right? So do you really need all these novelties? Perhaps.

Learn about the various types of agricultural software

Read more

The benefits of precision agriculture

Since the 1960s, agricultural yields per person have doubled. But so has the global population.

This temporary state of equilibrium isn’t good enough. In the short-term perspective, we’ll need to boost food production by 60% and, in some areas, by 100% to meet the growing demand for nourishment according to P. V. Vara Prasad, a crop ecophysiologist at Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Unfortunately, past increases in agricultural productivity have mostly been achieved by using harmful, climate-disrupting methods.

Natural biodiversity has been sacrificed to create vast monoculture fields. And in many low-income nations, survival depends on coaxing greater productivity from existing plots as more and more people scramble for limited resources.

Bernard Vanlauwe, soil scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

Our actions taking advantage of natural resources are already backfiring.

A new study from Stanford shows that about seven years of improvement in agricultural productivity were diminished by climate change, with extensive farming being a contributing factor. Putting more workers or tractors in the field no longer means better yields.

Climate change, however, is just one of the stressors the agricultural sector is facing:
Precision Farming: Applying Software to Soils, Sustainably

Source: Deloitte — From Agriculture to AgTech: An industry transformed beyond molecules and chemicals

The big promise behind emerging and field-ready precision farming technologies isn’t just helping us grow more food but doing so with greater intelligence.

Going back to my failed tomato project: I could have purchased more seeds and planted tomatoes in five pots instead of one using the same soil, pot type, and watering schedule. Perhaps three of the plants would have survived. But is this smart? Not really.

It would have been better to read the instructions on the packet, purchase the right fertilizer, adjust the bed sizes, water with less rigor, and so on. Then I’d likely have gotten a nice plant with plenty of ripe fruits. Now that’s sustainable, right?

Precision agriculture technology essentially empowers agricultural leaders with tools to plant smarter at scale. Connected farming machines, sensors, and in-field measurement tools already collect a ton of valuable data. But oftentimes, it remains siloed in storage systems and never put to use. That’s a huge omission.

The agro-industry could add on $500 billion in additional value to global GDP by 2030, if connectivity is implemented successfully.

McKinsey Center for Advanced Connectivity

Apart from higher profits, precision agriculture solutions also drive major green improvements:

  • Prevent soil degradation
  • Optimize water use
  • Enhance planting schedules
  • Adjust fertilizer use
  • Prevent crop diseases through early identification
  • Predict the likelihood of natural disasters

Overall, precision agriculture alleviates a lot of the day-to-day pressure farmers experience.

From buffalo and plow to drone and AI algorithm: What’s under the hood of precision farming software

Precision agriculture technologies are plenty. From AI and autonomous farming machines to predictive maintenance and blockchain-based provenance tracking technologies, a lot of ideas have been proposed.

But far fewer are implemented in the fields. So which precision farming technologies can drive sizeable direct and indirect gains? Here’s a brief from our AgriTech team.

Analytics-driven crop management software

A crop management system gives you an overview of your production statistics, planned yields, planting schedule, workforce performance, and compliance requirements. The purpose of such software is to provide support and guidance for making agricultural decisions.

Many crop management software solutions are customized to the needs of an agricultural producer. For example, our development team recently helped a multinational agricultural corporation develop a company-wide system for assessing crop vulnerabilities, identifying depletion issues, and following sustainability and compliance practices.

The system features web and mobile interfaces and collects data from IoT devices, connected machinery, and third-party big data analytics sources to empower decision-makers with comprehensive intelligence for decision-making.

Check out our case study about developing a custom crop management system

Read more

Apart from providing operational insights and risk mitigation strategies, crop management software can be extended with extra data points to better estimate yields, optimize distribution, and subsequently increase profits.

For example, Aerofarms collects about 130,000 data points about each harvest. It then sends this data for analysis to estimate how growth and resource use can be further improved. Aerofarms has already managed to reduce water consumption by 95% and uses no pesticides on its crops.

In the US, about one-quarter of farms use connected devices to collect crop data. However, low connectivity standards, lack of proper data management strategies, and poor analytics capabilities often stand in the way of improvements.

Drone farming

Speaking of data, agricultural drones have proven to be incredible helpers for collecting extra data for crop monitoring tasks such as:

  • Crop scouting
  • Precision mapping
  • Pest control
  • Irrigation
  • Livestock monitoring

Lightweight UAVs are a cost-effective alternative to chartering private flights to get a bird’s-eye view of your fields. What’s more, drone-obtained data can be immediately integrated with your crop management software for rapid analysis and reporting.

Learn how drone data collection and analysis work from our case study

Read more

Another promising use of drones in farming is to spray crops and distribute fertilizer. Thanks to location-based services and LiDAR technologies, drones can effectively navigate different topographies and dispense liquid with high precision for targeted coverage.

The benefit? You can save on labor costs and prevent excessive chemical use. In 2019, Switzerland became the first European country to authorize drones for spraying crops. As the cost of farming UAVs is expected to decrease to $1,250 per unit by 2026, it’s safe to assume that more drone farming use cases will emerge.

Agriculture IoT and sensing technologies

Sensing technologies also have been decreasing in price and thus becoming more accessible to producers of different sizes.

RFID sensors are already in active use for identifying and tracking the provenance of goods within the supply chain. A newer generation of RFID tags with temperature sensors has also enabled better cold chain logistics and remote control over the transportation of perishable produce at different legs of the journey.

In addition, RFID and IoT devices are now actively deployed for monitoring soil states and irrigation levels.

  • Evapotranspiration (ET) controllers use local weather data and soil moisture levels to adjust irrigation schedules.
  • Wind sensors help adjust watering schedules based on wind speed to ensure uniform irrigation across the landscape.
  • Near-infrared and electrical conductivity (EC) sensors can perform real-time soil diagnostics and provide recommendations on soil fertilizing and treatment.
  • Temperature and moisture sensors can improve greenhouse management and reduce resource waste by providing real-time insights.

Learn about other IoT use cases in agriculture and the feasibility of their implementation

Read more

Let’s say I decided to create a greenhouse for my tomatoes. As a farming rookie, however, I’m not sure which temperature and moisture levels are optimal for growth. In-soil sensors can supply me with data on current moisture levels, whereas temperature sensors connected with crop management systems can prescribe the optimal control levels for different seasons based on historic yield forecasts and real-time weather data. Such a combination helps ensure that photosynthesis and transpiration are optimized, resulting in higher yields and a top-quality harvest.

Learn how intelligent greenhouse systems work from our case study

Read more

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are gradually entering our roads. Some are also moving into the fields. It’s common knowledge that EVs are less polluting. Using electric farm equipment instead of a diesel model can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an average of 77 tons annually. But the latest models of electric tractors are also more efficient.

When compared with inefficient diesel motors that operate at 30% to 40% efficiency, highly efficient electric motors can operate at 90% efficiency and generate cost savings over time.

Tennessee Electric Farming Cooperation

Of course, EVs are still a relatively new technology. But some OEMs have made admirable progress in production. Monarch, a US-based startup specializing in electric tractors, has already pushed a new battery electric tractor to market with 30 kW of nominal continuous power and up to 70 horsepower (55 kW) of peak power.

The Monarch e-tractor is also furnished with GPS sensing and high-precision geolocation technologies, enabling farmers to drive a preprogrammed route or let the tractor autonomously complete scheduled jobs such as row plowing. In the future, Monarch plans to add Lidar sensing technology and computer vision algorithms to increase the capabilities of the driverless mode.

Given significant support from governments, e-farming vehicles will soon become another integral component of precision agriculture services.

Agriculture software development

A wide range of agriculture software development services for sustainable farming

Learn more

Vertical farming

Vertical farming — a compact approach to growing produce vertically within urban areas — is another emerging vector of precision agriculture.

Stacked growing systems consume up to 70% to 95% less water than in-field cultivation, require no soil, and work with artificial lighting, making year-round crops a reality for all climates. This alone makes them strong contenders for indoor urban farming.

Growing food closer to consumers also reduces transportation costs and product freshness. Plus, it makes supply more predictable and transparent.

Proponents believe that vertical farming technology represents the future of agriculture, hailing huge efficiency and environmental gains for the food industry. About $1.8bn has flowed into the sector since 2014.

Financial Times

However, vertical farming operations require paramount precision. A slight miscalculation in the irrigation schedule or lighting intensity can not only harm crops but magnify the already steep operational costs of vertical farms. Thankfully, sensing technologies are getting better every day. With improved connectivity, vertical farmers can exercise granular and timely control over their produce.

Case in point: We are working with a German vertical farming company on an AI-driven crop monitoring and lighting solution. The current system already allows for fully remote control over operations using a combination of IoT sensors and machine learning algorithms. Specifically, the system allows our client to monitor temperature, carbon dioxide, and humidity levels, plus make automatic adjustments. The lighting schedule is automated too by AI algorithms, which are also used for image recognition to analyze crop statuses in real time.

Learn how a modern monitoring and lighting system for vertical farming works

Read more

From farm to table, thanks to software

Precision agriculture technology is far from mainstream, yet it’s maturing rapidly. That’s a good thing, because we are entering a stage where people want better and more quality food yet natural resources are approaching critical levels of exhaustion. We need to produce more with less. Precision farming solutions are designed to help us accomplish that goal.

The best part? Precision farming doesn’t require going all tech galore. The most successful projects to date began as small-scale experiments with one technology (IoT sensing, for instance) and then progressively expanded to more advanced use cases. Grow your agro tech portfolio just as you grow your produce — one successful yield at a time.

Contact the Intellias agro software development team to learn more about the feasibility of incorporating precision farming technologies into your operations.

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