PA takes us back to the future

Technology developments are allowing even 100-year-old ideas to finally be put into action

(From left) US technology specialist Chad Colby gives Robin Schaefer and Phillip Marks a lesson on how to fly a UAV.

PHOTO: Emma Leonard

Several presenters at the 18th Precision Agriculture Symposium in September reminded the 230-strong audience that many of the goals of precision agriculture (PA) are not new – it is just that developments in technology are finally allowing them to be achieved.

Dr Robert Fitch from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney showed a concept drawing of a tramlined, integrated harvesting, weeding and planting system from 1858.

It was just wishful thinking back then, but technology, especially PA technologies, is providing the tools to now achieve these efficiency and production step-changes.

Dr Fitch said some of these historic ambitions were being realised through autonomous machines working on the soil – and in the sky. One of the latest examples is the new Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, which was explained to the symposium by Professor David Lamb, from the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information based at Armidale, New South Wales.

Enhanced guidance

By 2018, the Japanese system, a constellation of four global positioning satellites, is hoped to provide augmented positioning services to improve the accuracy and reliability of satellite-derived navigation solutions. By 2023 there will be seven in this constellation.

While positioning was where PA adoption started, it has now moved beyond guidance to data collection and analysis.

Associate Professor Brett Whelan, from the University of Sydney, is exploring ‘Big Ideas for using Data’.

With many machines set up for telemetry, information gathered on the machine from production and machine data can be uploaded to ‘the cloud’ and accessed remotely by managers, mechanics, agronomists and grain marketers.

For example, John Deere representatives at the symposium showed how remote mechanics are already using telematics to help growers improve their machine settings and operational efficiency.

However, the current consensus is that the huge potential of telematics will remain hard to capture unless rural areas have reliable internet with fast upload and download speeds.

Quality monitoring

One presentation specific to the grains industry was on how a grain quality monitor could help on-farm blending decisions.

Phillip Clancy, from Australian company Next Instruments, showed how this on-auger (grain) oil and protein monitor had helped growers increase returns by ensuring more grain loads meet higher quality specifications.

Taking samples every 11 seconds, the resolution of the quality data is lower than yield data but still high enough for blending decisions.

Mr Clancy pointed to one 185-hectare paddock with two distinct quality zones, where the use of the monitor to make blending decisions increased returns by $37.29/ha, a small reward for one grower–collaborator who had invested time and effort helping with the monitor’s practical development.

Other presentations of interest included NSW grower Warwick Holding, who is using PA to reduce within-paddock variation. This includes using canopy temperature as a measure of crop stress based on thermal data from Landsat8, and the use of GPS rather than imaging satellites to provide high-resolution moisture data. The latter two projects are still in the research phase.

Dr Jose Jimenez-Berni, from CSIRO, also gave an interesting presentation on the use of the Phenomobile Lite fitted with LiDAR, thermal and hyper-spectral sensors. These are used for crop monitoring to improve the efficiency of plant breeding data collection in the field.

Unmanned aerial vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were also discussed at the symposium. However, Moree grower and early adopter of UAVs Ben Boughton admitted that in recent months his UAV had been grounded. He has decided a combination of high-resolution satellite imagery plus professionally flown UAVs is required to provide the most cost-effective data collection, processing and analysis.

He said he plans to use satellite data to provide an overview of biomass and crop stresses, and the UAV to focus on smaller areas of interest.

US technology specialist Chad Colby is keen on a combination of UAVs. He said a low-cost unit with an optical (standard) camera can be used to quickly and cheaply check a paddock and then a UAV fitted with higher-quality cameras with near-infrared capability can be used to check specific areas of interest.

Papers and presentations from the symposium can be found on the SPAA website.


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