Precision agriculture has arrived. Driven by advances in Big Data, precision agriculture will have a marked impact on traditional approaches to farming land. Applying technological advances in data collection and geo-location, precision agriculture uses technology to optimise yield and detect operating efficiencies: this is technology that will tell farmers when is the best time to plant and when is the right time to start harvesting; that will take input costs down, negate environmental impact, reduce fuel and cut down on fatigue. Farmers across the globe are going to be challenged by this innovation in agriculture.

The technologies

Early signs of precision agriculture included grid sampling, mapping for fertilizers, pH soil corrections and yield measurements. The advent of GPS with its accurate positioning and information systems pushed things on. Precision agriculture includes equipment-mounted hardware (such as GPS receivers), sensors and remote equipment that collect information which is then fed into a softwareenabled control system yielding data which can prompt any number of actions, including real-time adjustment of equipment and the creation of geospatial maps.

Current technologies include automatic steering systems, GPS guidance systems, yield monitors, variable rate applications for ‘field prescriptions’, precision seeding systems, optical crop sensing technology, farm management software, mobile applications and cloud-based infrastructure, and irrigation systems. These technologies have scaled rapidly due to changes in GPS accuracy. GPS used to have worldwide positioning accuracy within 10 to 15 meters; now, GPS systems provide accuracy within centimetres – a product of real-time kinematic positioning and other correctional services. The farmer is able to plant more accurately, reduce crop damage, define boundary outlines, conduct soil content analysis, and improve crop management and yield maps for managing fertilizers and pesticides.

The take-up by region

The precision agriculture industry is expected to grow at a rate of 10 to 15 per cent each year over the next five years.

At the moment the United States is leading the sector, alongside increasing signs of take-up in parts of Latin America, Europe and Asia. In the US, corn and soybean growers are adopting guidance and auto-steering solutions, while in Europe the focus rather is more on the efficient use of inputs to address environmental issues and combat the negative public perception of agriculture. In Latin America, Brazil is looking in particular at the impact of data and fleet-management software on the management of sugarcane crops.

Things look rather different in Asia, where the approach to agriculture is still largely based on small fields and traditional farming practices (despite escalating population growth) and there is little awareness of precision agriculture. There are some stirrings of change, however, with increasing interest in new, low-cost GPS and data management technologies. The key to Asia’s success is increasing awareness of precision agriculture options and benefits.

The benefits to farmers

One clear benefit of precision agriculture is cost savings on inputs. How soon the grower can reap the benefits will depend on which technology is being implemented. Some – such as auto steering and variable rate applications – are fast, easily put into use and provide immediate returns. Technologies such as yield mapping and soil analysis provide a slower return on investment.

Fertilizer is the highest variable cost for the farmer. Any technology that will help to mitigate this cost is going to be highly valued. Early examples of real-time innovations are variable rate fertilizer applications and field prescriptions. New technologies can produce detailed soil fertility maps, allowing for strategic placement of fertilizer components to optimize yield. The cost savings for the farmer can be felt both at initial input cost and in improved yield at harvest.

An underlying benefit is the saving on fuel costs – particularly important in Europe. Technologies that enable equipment to be used in a more precise way – such as auto steering guidance systems and variable rate planting – have as a by-product significantly lower fuel consumption.

Precision agriculture allows the grower to maximise yield. Seed is the farmer’s second highest variable cost – and the introduction of genetically modified seed has seen the cost of seed rise quite dramatically in recent years. Seed planting technologies (using GPS guidance systems and variable rate seeding technology) enable more accurate planting; as a result, the cost of the seed input can be reduced and yield (at harvest) increased.

There are added benefits around lifestyle and convenience. Auto-steering GPS guidance systems reduce operator fatigue and free up time for other tasks. Considerable time and energy can be saved through the use of mobile software applications and cloud-based innovations (enabling large quantities of data to be collected, analysed, stored, transferred and backed up in real time).

‘Prescient’ agriculture innovations allow for greater flexibility across all aspects of farming, as well as enhanced accuracy and data validation. This applies to decisions on when, how and what to plant and to financial projections, farm insurance and equipment life.

Changes in the marketplace

Through a series of acquisitions and partnerships, precision agriculture innovators and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) have aligned to provide a distribution network for the latest technologies.

There are now four contenders among the OEMs: Deere & Co, CNH Global (supported by Trimble Navigation), AGCO (supported by Topcon Positioning Systems) and Ag Leader/Novariant (supported by AutoFarm). The last three have aligned with leaders in precision agriculture innovation in order to remain competitive.

These alliances are taking the OEMs beyond hardware to integrated software and data management solutions. They also equip the precision agriculture innovator to focus on innovating (and not on the development of distribution networks or dealer channels). Each party can play to their core competences and reduce risk.

Alliances such as these are crucial to the growth of the precision agriculture sector. Their success will be measured on quality, ease of use, customer access via dealers and independent resellers, marketability and product support and training.

The future

Good agricultural land is scarce and under constant threat of degradation or loss. Across the globe, precision agriculture’s promise of greater sustainability is attractive. Without Big Data, there would be no future for precision agriculture.

The hardware and software systems that are gathering data from the field are now moving to user-friendly data management systems which will assist farmers in their decisions (whether that be planting or insurance coverage). The intention is for the grower to become increasingly proactive.

Age is also going to play a major role in the adoption of innovative technologies. Younger farmers are more comfortable around technology and better educated about its benefits. In addition, as more leased farmland comes onto the market, young farmers will get greater access and more choices within the sector.

There will also be improvements on the equipment side. Remote monitoring and diagnostics innovations, for example, will allow for real-time troubleshooting of guidance systems, tractor and other equipment problems. Performance and efficiency should improve.

Optical crop sensing could be a gamechanging technology. This allows for seamless, site-specific application management. It addresses the shortcomings of current variable rate application systems by gathering infrared readings from optical sensors that are operational in any climate, day or night.

The unmanned aviation vehicle (UAV) sector is also one to watch. With a UAV, growers can monitor a wide variety of farm and field activities including moisture control, crop health and fertilizer dispersal. President Obama’s 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act seeks to integrate UAV into the national airspace by 2015. Currently, six domestic research sites are mandated with evaluating and developing UAV capability as novel high impact precision farming solutions.

Acquisitions, alliances and strategic partnerships will continue but within the software innovator sector. This sector can provide tremendous value to the precision agriculture industry, as these products are typically easy to integrate into existing systems while providing immediate benefit. The global market is primed for a spate of mergers and acquisitions as demand builds for more software technology, services, and increased profits for reinvestment into agriculture.

Market penetration in Latin America, Eastern Europe and China will deepen, as awareness in these regions increases and technologies become more affordable – and available. The precision agriculture solutions for each of these markets will be determined by the local mix of demographic, geographic and environmental factors, but site-specific accuracy, data-driven solutions and environmental issues will certainly be key concerns.

The key driver for change across all agriculture markets is profitability. In precision agriculture, each market has its own individual challenge. Latin America’s many crops and large labour force will support innovation of farm- and data-management software applications. Europe will remain focused on environmental impact and awareness. Asia’s challenge will be to increase yields to feed growing populations and to raise awareness of the innovations available to farmers.